This one was different, this fourth Steelers loss in a row, and the way in which it was different made it feel worse. It was different because they hadn't played particularly poorly, they weren't highly penalized, they didn't turn the ball over, they landed their share of punches, and they were the home team. The other times in those other losses that hadn't been the case, and so it was possible to walk away from those and convince yourself the outcome had been self-inflicted.
Not this time. This time it felt like the Steelers had been beaten, that the better team had won.
The final yesterday at Heinz Field was Dallas 35, Pittsburgh 30, and if the NFL was looking for a matchup to provide a jump-start to its sluggish TV ratings over the first couple of months of this season, Steelers-Cowboys seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. But if the Steelers were looking for something to put their season back on course, this was the wrong opponent at the wrong time.
The Cowboys showed up in Pittsburgh with a rookie replacing their $100 million man at quarterback, with a rookie running back, with the baggage of having made the playoffs only twice over the last 10 seasons. The Cowboys also showed up with a seven-game winning streak, and they used the next three-plus hours to show the largest home crowd in Steelers history that they were the better team.
Once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys were viewed as a cutting edge organization because of the utilization of computers and other technology that hadn't made its way into the mainstream football business, but there was nothing clever or particularly innovative in the way they went about their business at Heinz Field. It was a blocking and tackling football game, and the Cowboys won because they were better at it.
The Steelers came out ready to meet the challenge of trying to snap a losing streak against an opponent looking to extend the longest winning streak in the NFL this season. Dallas took the opening kickoff, but on the game's third play, a sack/strip of Dak Prescott by Anthony Chickillo was recovered by Ryan Shazier, and the Steelers capitalized eight plays later on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Le'Veon Bell. After the Cowboys answered by settling for a red zone field goal, the Steelers marched right down the field again to score another touchdown, this one coming on a 3-yard pass to Eli Rogers.
That was the start, but over time the score tightened, and what was a 12-3 lead became a 13-12 deficit, and then it was on. There was a considerable amount of back and forth, both on the scoreboard and in the battle of the hitting, but the Cowboys simply were more dynamic. Dallas scored touchdowns of 50, 32, and 83 yards – one coming when Dez Bryant beat Artie Burns in a one-on-one matchup, one where Ezekiel Elliott took a screen pass on a second-and-18 from the Dallas 17-yard line and ran through or away from the Steelers defense on that side of the field, and one where the Cowboys offensive line made a hole big enough for Elliott to pop through untouched into the secondary and then nobody could catch him.
Depending upon the color clothing you were wearing, those plays either were made by the Cowboys or allowed by the Steelers, but what they managed to do besides impact the scoreboard was to shine a light on the differences between the teams on this afternoon.
Photos of pregame warmups and locker room prep ahead of the Steelers' Week 10 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
It was a game where the Steelers finished with more first downs, 30-20, with more total net yards, with more takeaways, with more sacks, with a better red zone percentage, with a virtual tie in time of possession, and with only one more punt. Typically, that would be a recipe for a victory, but it wasn't yesterday because a Steelers offense believed to be capable of being the NFL's best this season was out-gunned by a Cowboys unit that had rookies starting at quarterback and running back.
There was a time earlier this season when the Steelers were seen as deserving of consideration as one of the best teams in their conference, a viable Super Bowl contender. Today, that's an accurate description of the Cowboys, while the Steelers have become a team that's desperate just to win a football game.