5 thoughts from Cowboys' loss to Texans: DeAndre Hopkins makes a difference; the good news for Dallas

HOUSTON — The parity in the NFL really is impressive. A week after winning by a field goal over Detroit at the end of regulation, the Cowboys lose to the Texans in similar fashion.

Here are my thoughts on the Cowboys’ third overall loss and third road loss of the season, 19-16 in overtime at NRG Stadium:

1. The two most talented offensive players on the field Sunday were Ezekiel Elliott and DeAndre Hopkins. Elliott was held in check all night. Hopkins made the big plays when Houston needed them most. That was the difference in the game. The Texans found a way to get Hopkins in space as he caught nine passes for 151 yards. The Houston defense keyed in on Elliott all night, limiting him to 54 yards on 20 carries. Elliott, who came in averaging 106.5 yards per game this season, was held under 60 yards for only the third time in 30 career games. The other two also resulted in Cowboys losses. 

“They were just very active up front,” Elliott said. “Moving around a lot. A lot of line stunts. They did a great job against our run game.”

2. Good news is that the other teams in the NFC East — Eagles (2-3) and Giants (1-4) — both lost on Sunday and the Redskins (2-1) play Monday night at New Orleans. The division looks to be one of the worst in the league. A 2-3 record isn’t the end of the world. With that said, 3-2 would’ve put Dallas in a very nice spot early in the season. 

“I don’t know, we just haven’t got it going on offense,” Dak Prescott said of the offense’s struggles on the road. “I don’t know if there’s one thing we can pinpoint and say this is the reason we’re not having success on the road and we’re having that success at home. That’s what we got to figure out. We’re five games in the season, we got a lot of ball left and lucky enough that we got a lot of time to do that. But it’s got to happen fast, it’s got to happen soon for us to figure it out and get better.”

3. This game never even gets to overtime without some of the big goal-line stops from the defense. Midway through the fourth quarter, you had to think Houston was going to get seven points when it had a first-and-goal from the Dallas 1. But big plays by Jeff Heath, Tyrone Crawford and the rest of the front seven made the difference, forcing another Houston field goal. Every time it looked like the Texans had a chance to pull away, the Cowboys made key stops on defense. Then there was the Jaylon Smith hit before halftime. Dallas would have been in serious trouble if it had fallen behind 17-6 at that point. Instead, Smith helped keep the score at 10-6. The former second-round pick missed a tackle earlier in the series but made up for it with maybe his best play as a Cowboy, putting a big hit on Texans QB Deshaun Watson.

“We just want to be relentless,” Smith said. “We want to fight for every inch. That’s what we pride ourselves on, being a tribe and loving one another. We showed that tonight. But there are plays out there that we can get better on.”

4. Good things happen when you force turnovers. Despite being one of the NFL’s top defensive units through a month of play, Dallas has struggled to get takeaways. The Cowboys got only their third of the season early in the third quarter. After DeAndre Hopkins hauled in a short pass, Anthony Brown knocked the ball loose. Jourdan Lewis, who hasn’t played much this season, recovered the ball and returned it 14 yards to the Houston 16. Dallas scored a touchdown five plays later to take a 13-10 lead. Dallas was the only team in the league without an interception before safety Xavier Woods picked Watson off late in the fourth quarter with the game tied 16-16. The play gave the Cowboys the ball back with 10 seconds left, an opportunity they couldn’t capitalize on as the game went into overtime. The Cowboys entered Week 5 with a league-low two takeaways, both coming off fumble recoveries.

“We’re a team,” Jaylon Smith said. “If it’s a night where they are not scoring, then we need to score on defense. We need to cause more turnovers, we need to put them in better position to score points. It’s a collective effort. 

“There are going to be games where the defense, we’re going to need to score points. And we haven’t done that this year.”

5. Nice to see a Rico Gathers sighting in the first quarter. Entering Sunday night’s game, Geoff Swaim was the Cowboys’ only tight end with a catch in a regular-season game. But Gathers got behind the defense and caught a 30-yard strike from Dak Prescott on Dallas’ second possession. The play along the right sideline helped set up a second field goal, giving the Cowboys an early 6-0 lead. Gathers, who has made highlight grabs in the preseason and training camp practices, has played in all but one game this season. In his three previous games, Gathers was targeted three times but was unable to come up with a catch. Although Gathers wasn’t targeted again, at least the Cowboys are showing that they’ll continue giving him the occasional opportunity. Dallas could really use his size in red-zone situations.

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