Cowboys can still make playoffs but don't look like title contenders

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are just good enough to be good enough, but through nine games, they are not true contenders.

Not with a loss to the New Orleans Saints, who were without quarterback Drew Brees. Not with a loss to the Green Bay Packers, who were without wide receiver Davante Adams.

And not with Sunday's 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, who were without Adam Thielen.

Oh, the Cowboys can still make the playoffs if they win the NFC East. They are undefeated through four division games and have already beaten the similarly 5-4 Philadelphia Eagles.

The last time the Cowboys beat a team with a winning record at the time they played them in the regular season was Week 13 last year against the Saints.

"It would have been a big win for us," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "Even though we're at home, it could have been a big win for us to get this win, and especially come back and do it with a lot of good performances we had tonight. But we were short and that means we've got a bigger challenge these next seven ballgames."

With 4:34 to play, Dak Prescott had everything he wanted: the ball and a chance to win the game.

He completed five of six passes to get the Cowboys to the Minnesota 11 with 1:33 to play. But on a night when he threw for 388 yards and had touchdown passes to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb, the Cowboys took the ball out of his hand on second and third down. Instead, new coordinator Kellen Moore opted for consecutive Ezekiel Elliott runs even though Elliott did not have a carry longer than 6 yards all night.

"In normal circumstances you would think we would give it to Zeke a couple of times," Jason Garrett said. "Second (down), inside 2 yards, we're going to make that first down, which it didn't happen in this game."

Jones didn't second-guess the playcalling. Neither did Prescott.

"If you asked that offensive line, you asked the running back, they're going to say they need to execute those plays," Prescott said. "We get that first down, nobody in here is even talking about they took the ball out of my hands, right? So it comes down to execution ... We're not going to talk about what we should've done, what we could've done. We've just got to learn from it and do better next time."

The Cowboys' season is approaching a should have and could have situation. They have lost key NFC games to the Saints, Green Bay Packers and now Vikings.

"We're a confident team. We're not going to let anybody outside of that locker room get in between us," Prescott said. "We're going to stay close together. We're going to just keep working, put our head down and do exactly that. We still control our own destiny. As long as we can do that, we can't ask for anything more."

Eye-popping NextGen Stat: Cooper had more than 100 yards receiving for the fourth time in five home games, but his work along the sideline was stellar. He had three catches for 45 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown in which he barely kept his feet inbounds. According to NextGen Stats, that touchdown had .17 yards of sideline distance, a 13-yarder had minus-.58 yards of sideline distance and a 20-yarder in the second quarter had minus-.33 yards of sideline space. None of the receptions had better than a 29.9% completion probability.

Troubling trend: It is difficult to call one game a trend, but the Cowboys’ third-down defense was the worst it has been all season, allowing a 57% conversion rate (8 of 14). Entering the game, the Cowboys allowed a 27.1% conversion rate, which was second-best in the NFL. Before Sunday, New Orleans had the most success at 42.9% (6 of 14) against the Cowboys. When the Cowboys needed to make a play most, they couldn’t.