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Cowboys Hash Marks: Despite loss, Dallas still leads NFC East

There’s been a lot of consternation about the Dallas Cowboys through six weeks of the NFL season, but even with the poor performance, they sit atop the NFC East.

DALLAS — Beating the Arizona Cardinals was going to be a tough task without Dak Prescott, but the Dallas Cowboys made sure it was impossible with four turnovers. 

The Cardinals capitalized on them, found their groove, and quarterback Kyler Murray had a happy homecoming, even though he completed just nine passes.

Here are some takeaways from the 38-10 Monday night meltdown:

Ezekiel Elliott took the Cowboys out of it— The Dallas defense was doing a magnificent job of stifling the Cardinals offense early, which is really saying something given how porous the Cowboys have been and how prolific Arizona has been.

Much was made about how the Cowboys defense held a team scoreless in the first quarter for the first time this season, but it was also just the second time that the Cardinals posted a goose egg through the initial period. 

Of course, the Cardinals were on the march when the first quarter ended with Arizona facing a second-and-4 from the Cowboys' 21-yard line to start the second quarter.

The first score came via a drive sparked by Elliott fumbling the ball. The Cardinals got a touchdown off the free possession. On the very next drive, two plays in, Elliott fumbled again. Arizona scored another touchdown. 

When the Cowboys were backed out of field goal range on a CeeDee Lamb penalty, punted and then Murray hit Christian Kirk for an 80-yard touchdown, it was curtains.

Take away the Elliott fumbles and maybe the Cowboys are playing an ugly game with the Cardinals, one they may still lose. Elliott has five fumbles lost this season. That has to change, or else Dallas will finish top-5 all right: top-5 in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Is Andy Dalton really that bad?— The former TCU Horned Frog posted a 65.8 passer rating, completing 34-of-54 for 266 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Dalton isn't like Dak Prescott in many areas, but he also didn’t appear to be the reason that Dallas lost. 

The Cowboys have three grades: winning, losing and "just did your job." With Dalton, the sense was he did his job.

The outcome was only made worse by the missed defensive foul by Dre Kirkpatrick on Lamb that led to an interception, and also the callow offensive line. That interception was the first of the game, and arguably shouldn't have happened.

Dalton also took three sacks, which Prescott also took against the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns where at least he had the benefit of playing behind left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin.

Prescott was delivering winning performances through his first five games. Dalton may do no better than "just did your job," which may not be good enough to win games some weeks.

The defense will always be with you— While the cavalry isn’t coming to save key parts of the offense, the theory with the defense was that reinforcements were coming so they had a chance to improve. However, the only reinforcements left to return from injured reserve or suspension are cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive end Randy Gregory and maybe linebacker Sean Lee.

Leighton Vander Esch returned to the linebacking corps against the Cardinals, but played 32 snaps and made just three tackles. The philosophy the Cowboys had with their defense was to generate takeaways. They aren't there; Dallas is last in the league with three takeaways.

The pass rush was also supposed to compensate for the lack of talent on the back end. Instead, Dallas is tied for 13th-fewest sacks with 11. The only hope is that maybe the defense is good enough to protect leads rather than constantly deal with a three-score deficit thanks to early offensive giveaways.

Dallas is still first place in the NFC East— At 2-4, the Cowboys are still first place in the division. Of course, this is a fact that isn't met with universal optimism at The Star.

"I'm not in the feel-good mood, frankly, that we got manna from Heaven being in the East," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told 105.3 "The Fan" Tuesday. "These things have a way of evening out as we go along, and certainly the NFC East is having its challenges right now. All of that is a way of not wanting to talk about other teams. When you're not playing any better than we are, it's hard for me to basically look to the endgame, which is to win the East, and get excited about the fact that we're better than anybody."

However, chief operating officer Stephen Jones went on the same airwaves and said something a little different.

"There's a lot of football left to be played," he said. "We're in a division that's, as a group, is not winning a lot of football games right now. We're still in the mix. I know coach [Mike] McCarthy. He coached a lot of winning football teams and has a lot of skins on the wall and feels like we can get there."

If Dallas beats Washington in Week 7, they will still lead the division at 3-4 and drop Washington to 1-6. If the New York Giants (1-5) beat the Philadelphia Eagles (1-4-1) this Thursday night, it starts to open up a real possibility that the Cowboys could be in the catbird seat in the NFC East with a Week 8 matchup against the Eagles brewing for Nov. 1.

Do you think the Dallas Cowboys will be able to continue to lead their division despite the issues facing the team? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.