‘A piece of humble pie’: In ‘embarrassing’ loss to Broncos, Cowboys’ greatest strength became their greatest weakness – USA TODAY

ARLINGTON, Texas — The bright orange jerseys flashed in the stands and the intermittent cheers were audible. Coaches, players and fans could hear the uncharacteristic chants reverberate across AT&T Stadium: “Let’s go, Broncos.”

As Denver shut out Dallas for 55 minutes of play in what ultimately concluded as a 30-16 Broncos win, the Cowboys were embarrassed on and off the field Sunday.

They knew it.

“It was bad just to hear them chanting ‘Broncos’ in our home stadium,” Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. “It goes in with everything about how embarrassing it was today. That was embarrassing, all parts of it.

“A piece of humble pie.”

MORE: Cowboys sputter as Broncos snap Dallas’ six-game win streak

The Cowboys were the inferior team on offense, defense and special teams in this contest. Their production came up short, but this was about more than the bottom line: Dallas played with less physicality and less energy than the Broncos, several players and management members said. Head coach Mike McCarthy conceded he was outcoached. Defenders acknowledged their intensity and tackling on first contact were insufficient. The squad bearing the Cowboys star and a red stripe on its helmets hardly resembled the units that through seven weeks had been the league’s most explosive offense and a fly-to-the-ball, opportunistic defense.

“We got thumped in every aspect of the game,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “They whooped us in every aspect.”

Cowboys rookie LB Micah Parsons: “They came out and played harder than we did. … We couldn’t get no momentum.

“When you get stunned, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.” pic.twitter.com/wfj1xd9kvh

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 7, 2021

The initial play of the game augured well: Running back Tony Pollard returned the Broncos’ kickoff 54 yards. That would be Dallas’ highlight of the game. The Cowboys’ initial two possessions would prove much more telling. Were the Cowboys completely inept early? No. Prescott overcame a hit to throw cross-body to Amari Cooper, who completed the 32-yard play down the left sideline on the second series. But far more often were insufficient gains (-1, 0 and 1 yards on three Ezekiel Elliott plays) and missed passes (Prescott both overthrew and underthrew his receivers) that resulted in the Cowboys’ first two of eight straight scoreless possessions. Dallas aimed to spark their attack with fourth-down attempts on each of those drives. They failed.

The fourth-down balks weren’t horribly risky from a field-position perspective, Denver lining up with 78 and then 80 yards to go. But the aggressive message the Cowboys sent arguably backfired as it lit a fire in Broncos players.

“You take the field with a little anger, honestly,” said Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who completed 19 of 28 pass attempts for 249 yards and a touchdown. “It’s like, ‘Hey, man—we are going for it because they (the Cowboys) said our offense is not going to score.’ We talked about in the huddle and used it as motivation.”

The Broncos overcame negative plays to engineer an 11-play, 80-yard drive fueled by three powerful chunk runs and a basketball-rebound-like 25-yard catch by receiver Jerry Jeudy. Broncos running back Melvin Gordon burst through the Cowboys’ line repeatedly, eating at the heart of Dallas’ defense, including for a 3-yard touchdown.

“We felt (the fourth-down attempt) was a disrespect to us,” Broncos center Lloyd Cushenberry said. “We definitely took that personal and just came out and put some points on the board.”

The Broncos captured the lead with 1:52 to play in the first quarter. They never surrendered it.

The methods of infliction varied, the Broncos next scoring when Teddy Bridgewater threw a dime of a fade ball to receiver Tim Patrick after a double move. The 44-yard score marked the second straight week Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs was burned on a double move, Diggs also drawing defensive pass interference and holding penalties before halftime.

“I didn’t play good at all,” said Diggs, who had seven interceptions in the first six games of the season but has allowed several big plays. “We didn’t come out with (enough) intensity and it came back to haunt us.”

The Cowboys were haunted by ill-timed quarterback-receiver connections, pass-protection woes, penalties and a punt that they blocked but muffed seconds later. As Dallas reclaimed the ball with 6:32 to play, trailing by 30, goals turned from engineering what seemed like a near-impossible win to setting the tone for the remainder of the Cowboys’ season.

With that in mind, the Cowboys insist they stand by their decision to leave Prescott in the game in what some might consider garbage time. With two weeks (the bye and one game) off resting a strained calf, Prescott (19-of-39 passing for 232 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) was not sharp. McCarthy believed his offense needed the live-speed, situational work; Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who discussed the decision with McCarthy after the game, was comfortable with the move.

And to Prescott, the final 5 minutes of a largely lost day were about building character. That might sound like a liberal description of the $160 million, thrice-injured-in-13-months quarterback’s decision to rush for a 2-point conversion—but Prescott believed his team was fighting until the final few minutes and needed to establish that their early-afternoon performance was the exception rather than the rule.

“If somebody would have tried to (take me out), I would have told them I wasn’t,” Prescott said. “We needed to show our fight, our resiliency—something that’s won us a lot of games.

“When you’re getting beat like that, you’ve got to show your character.”

Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb said players didn’t have best week of practice and it showed. “We felt like we had a great plan and great preparation from the coaches. At the end of the day, it’s on the players to go execute and we didn’t.

“We take full 100% blame of that.”

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 7, 2021

Thus the Cowboys avoided a shutout as they fell to 6-2, the Broncos improving 5-4 as they exceeded league-wide expectations. Dallas still holds a firm, 3 ½-game lead in the NFC East as they prepare to host the 4-4 Falcons and then visit the 5-4 Chiefs. Players and coaches alike insisted this will not be film burned, but film used constructively.

The Cowboys will also re-examine their mentality after McCarthy’s Wednesday presentation imploring them to not “eat the cheese” and overstate their early-season success appeared not to translate to a home game against a Broncos team mere days removed from trading star pass rusher Von Miller.

Players hesitated to say they underestimated Denver, even as they expressed varying degrees of surprise at getting “punched in the face,” in linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s words. Vander Esch also conceded that perhaps the team “needed this”—to realize that their greatest strength can also bite them as their greatest weakness.

How did Broncos coach Vic Fangio begin his postgame press conference after upsetting Cowboys?

Fangio: ” ‘How about them Broncos,’ as Jimmy Johnson used to say.”

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 7, 2021

The Cowboys had won several games this season in which they rebounded late from adversity, whether by masking big plays allowed thanks to a timely interception or responding to an offensive turnover or injury-strewn lineup with last-minute heroics like in their road overtime win in New England. Sunday, they were reminded: Relying on late rebounds from adversity is dangerous.

“When you win a game like we did last week, on the road in a tough environment with everything going against us, I think you sometimes think you can just roll out there and get it done even when the adversity hits,” Prescott said, adding that “maybe,” the Cowboys had become too sure of themselves.

Prescott said he believes the loss to the Broncos marked the first game that the Cowboys were less physical than their opponent was this season. He’s determined to make sure it’s the last.

Jones believes the solution is within reach.

“This team,” Jones said, “is capable of righting the ship.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.