Arlington, Texas — The Detroit Lions’ biggest challenge coming to Dallas was limiting the damage Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott could do on the ground. But it was a long pass to Elliott, a 34-yard reception on a wheel route, that broke the Lions’ back in a 26-24 loss to the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon.
Trailing by one in the closing minutes, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott connected with Elliott deep down the right sideline, with Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis in coverage, setting up a game-winning, 38-yard field goal by Brett Maher as time expired.
"It was just a big-time play," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Dak liked what he saw with the coverage, Zeke did a great job on the route. A big-time throw, talk about a nut-cuttin' time throw."
Elliott’s reception capped a monster day for the superstar back. He racked up 152 yards on the ground, on 25 carries, and another 88 yards receiving, including a 38-yard touchdown in the first half of the victory.
"What went wrong?" Lions coach Matt Patricia said, repeating back the question. "He's a great player. He's a great player in this league. He's dynamic, he's explosive, he makes a lot of people miss tackles. He's obviously one of the better players on the team, center-point of the team. We've got to do a better job of taking him away. Couldn't get it done."
The Lions (1-3) opened the game by driving across midfield each of their first three possessions, but didn’t cash in until the third series.
By that point, the Cowboys (2-2) had already opened the scoring with a 32-yard Maher field goal. They worked into the red zone on the back of two big plays, a 31-yard play-action pass to tight end Geoff Swaim and a deep pass to rookie Michael Gallup, working down the left sideline against Nevin Lawson. The drive stalled when Darius Slay broke up a second-down throw and blanketed the intended receiver in the red zone on third down.
The Lions countered the Cowboys’ three with seven.
After a replay review overturned a first-down reception by Marvin Jones, Detroit faced third-and-3 from the Dallas 45. Quarterback Matthew Stafford found Golden Tate near the right sideline, well past the marker, and the receiver took advantage of cornerback Jourdan Lewis losing his footing, made safety Jeff Heath (Saginaw Valley, Lake Orion) miss in the open field and high-stepped across the goal line to put Detroit up, 7-3.
"Having a bunch of guys who can make plays all game opens it up for all of us," Tate said.
The Cowboys cut the advantage to one with another Maher field goal, this one from 43 yards out early in the second quarter, but the Lions got the points back with a 13-play, 60-yard drive.
The Lions entered the game the league’s worst in the red zone and those issues showed up again on this series. After working inside the 20 on an end around to cornerback Jamal Agnew, the Lions’ stalled from a combination of a penalty, a questionable play call and a bad pass by Stafford.
Taylor Decker was hit with a false start on first down and after an ineffective run and swing pass to running back Kerryon Johnson left the Lions with a third-and-12, Stafford flung a pass to wide for Jones in the end zone, leaving the offense to settle for a 33-yard boot by Matt Prater.
The Cowboys regained the lead before the end of the half with a quick-strike series. A 19-yard run by Elliott and a 12-yard pass to Cole Beasley pushed Dallas across midfield. A questionable unnecessary roughness penalty against defensive end Romeo Okwara, after Prescott lost his footing, but there was no whistle, set up a 38-yard screen pass to Elliott for the score, putting the Cowboys up 13-10 at the break.
"We try to get him the ball in a lot of different ways," Garrett said. "Typically, it's by running it, but one of the big parts of the evaluation coming out was how productive of a receiver we felt he could be."
The two teams traded punts to open the third quarter before Dallas extended its lead to 10 with an eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive.
Again, Elliott played a key role, breaking free for a 41-yard gain on the first play of the possession. After the back converted a fourth-and-1 at the Detroit 3, Prescott found Swaim open in the back of the end zone for an easy 1-yard touchdown.
Big plays from some of Detroit’s best playmakers prevented the game from getting away. A one-handed catch by Jones for 17 and a pair of 22-yard receptions for Kenny Golladay set up Johnson’s first career touchdown run, an 8-yard effort around the right edge of his line where he plowed over safety Heath at the 2 to get into the end zone.
"It was surreal," Johnson said. "It was something that I've wanted for a long time. It was a bang-bang play, it was a physical play, so I enjoyed it."
But the Cowboys marched right back down the field, largely behind the powerful legs of Elliott. Three carries gaining 25 yards pushed the drive into Lions territory and a 19-yard pass to Beasley set the Cowboys up with first-and-goal at the Lions 6.
But once again the defense didn’t break, limiting the Cowboys to a short field goal, making it 23-17 with 5:49 remaining.
After a quiet half, it was time for Tate to make some noise. After Stafford was sacked for a third time by Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Stafford found Tate for 35 yards to give the Lions a fresh set of downs in Dallas territory. Two plays later, Stafford found Tate streaking wide open down the right sideline for a 38-yard touchdown.
"He ran a good route," Stafford siad. "I was able to find him out there, drop it into him and he did the rest."
Prater’s extra point put the Lions back on top, 24-23, with 2:17 remaining.
But that proved too much time as the Cowboys worked into field-goal range on Elliott’s reception.
"We knew we were coming down to a hostile environment," Patricia said. "Obviously, this is a hard place to play. That's a good team over there and they executed a lot better than we did tonight."
Stafford finished 24 of 30 for 307 yards and the two touchdowns. Tate had eight catches for 132 yards, both team highs. Johnson rushed for 55 yards on nine carries and one TD.