Cowboys’ troubling trend bubbles up at worst possible moment in pick-6 OT loss to Jaguars

Dak Prescott was bemused, his tone even playful when he shared the remark with a handful of reporters Thursday.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback was discussing his uncharacteristic recent interception trend. He took accountability, at times for his risky decisions and at times for the improved communication he could hammer with his receivers.

But also… those tipped passes?

“It’s just frustrating when you look on film and you see f***ing other quarterbacks throwing right to guys’ stomachs and they’re not catching it,” Prescott said, in response to a question from Yahoo Sports. “And my ball gets tipped up and picked like three times. Like, what the f*** is going on here?

“I’m just trying to live straight and live the right way and create good karma in whichever way I can at this point.”

Perhaps Prescott should keep trying.

Because as the Cowboys faced third-and-4 in overtime against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Dallas’ defense already having thwarted the Jaguars’ overtime-opening possession, the dreaded tipped ball reared its punishing head again.

Prescott’s pass — was his arm batted at the line of scrimmage? Broadcast footage of the fast-paced play was inconclusive — hit receiver Noah Brown as Brown dove. Then, the ball bounced off Brown and into the waiting hands of safety Rayshawn Jenkins, who raced 52 yards up the right sideline to win the game 40-34 for the Jaguars.

This wasn’t the first time of late Prescott’s pass had bounced off his receiver and transformed into an interception. But was this the worst yet? The interception-turned-decisive-touchdown certainly seemed that way.

The Cowboys squandered a chance to clinch a postseason berth in what would mark their first consecutive seasons qualifying for the playoffs in 15 years.

“Unlucky bounce for us,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters. “Great play by them.”

In Jacksonville on Sunday, there seemed to be great plays and unlucky bounces aplenty for each team.

Cowboys-Jaguars was a tale of 2 halves

At halftime, the Cowboys seemed well-positioned for a win. Their caliber of play reflected a team capable of postseason success.

Dallas built a 21-7 lead in the first half courtesy of textbook complementary football. Safety Donovan Wilson recovered a fumble; running back Ezekiel Elliott capped off a six-play drive in the end zone; Dallas’ defense forced a three-and-out after Micah Parsons’ sack on first down immediately challenged Jacksonville’s down-and-distance; and Prescott then found rookie tight end Peyton Hendershot on a 20-yard touchdown.

Just 17 minutes had elapsed, the Cowboys appeared dominant while the Jaguars looked futile.

It wouldn’t last.

The Jaguars scored 21 unanswered points powered by quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s big arm, Jones-named receivers’ sure hands (hello, Zay Jones and Marvin Jones Jr.), and a Jacksonville defense capitalizing on Prescott’s recent interception troubles. The broadcast flashed an ominous banner with 3:04 to go in the third quarter: Prescott’s eight picks, Fox’s graphic said, were the most by any NFL quarterback in the past six weeks. That was before Prescott threw his ninth in six games, and 10th this season. His 3.9% interception rate now leads the NFL throughout the full year.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ turnover troubles reared their ugly head in overtime against the Jaguars, and prevented Dallas from clinching a playoff berth. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Wildly enough, Prescott’s first half was near-perfect. He’d completed 15 of 16 attempts (93.7%) for 137 yards and two touchdowns. On the day, he completed 76.6% of his passes (23-of-30) for 256 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Prescott also scrambled three times in their fourth-quarter, go-ahead drive, twice using his legs to convert on third-and-1 plays. Outside of the two extremely costly errors, he was productive.

But the Jaguars and Lawrence readily realized: Cowboys cornerback Kelvin Joseph, starting as Dallas retools with two of its three top corners to injury, was a liability. The Dallas run defense, down linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to an early game neck injury, was, too. Lawrence made 38 air yards look effortless on a third-quarter touchdown to start the comeback, Zay Jones making the double-move and remaining 21 yards to the end zone easily on what totaled a 59-yard catch-and-run score.

Just once in the first half had the Jaguars netted more than 15 yards on a play. Six times in the second half did the Cowboys defense allow such costly plays, Jacksonville’s 193 rushing yards the most the Cowboys had allowed since Nov. 13.

It had appeared the Cowboys’ run defense was rounding into form last month, a trade for then-Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and the increasing rhythm of Vander Esch helping. Hankins suffered a pectoral strain last week that will sideline him until the postseason. Vander Esch’s neck injury — he had neck surgery in 2019 and collarbone surgery in 2020 — threatens to further require the Cowboys to get creative in run support.

Dallas’ defense collected three takeaways on the day: an interception, a recovery of a Travis Etienne fumble and a forced-and-recovered Lawrence fumble in the fourth quarter. But they also allowed 503 yards (only 32 came in overtime), their most in a game this season.

Lawrence often displayed the situational awareness, accuracy, arm strength and mobility that should give Jaguars fans hope on his 27-of-42, 318-yard, four-touchdown day. But he also reminded NFL fans where room for growth remains with the interception and the fumble, which came when he looked to be driving Jacksonville within range of a game-winning field goal attempt in regulation. He also appeared several times to throw to empty areas of the field on account of miscommunication with his receivers.

What’s next for the Cowboys?

Dallas has just six days to prepare for the biggest game of its regular season. The 13-1 Philadelphia Eagles visit the Cowboys on Saturday, and Philadelphia would clinch the NFC East with a win.

This will be the Cowboys’ first game vs. the Eagles this season with Prescott, whose five-game absence due to a fracture in his throwing thumb included Dallas’ 26-17 loss in Philadelphia. Dallas had stayed competitive then even as backup quarterback Cooper Rush threw three interceptions.

Prevailing wisdom over recent months had pegged Prescott as a better bet to beat the Eagles. He still should be, but a Cowboys offense that has enough weapons to avoid desperation plays should perhaps consider more acutely when to play aggressively and when to retreat to more conservative calls.

“Risk versus reward, trying to be smarter with the ball and limit those opportunities that the defense can get their hands on,” Prescott had said Thursday. “Whether they’re tipped or not, I just know this position they put our team in and it’s something I don’t want to do.

“You definitely don’t want to throw a pick every game, and at times, it feels like that.

I’ve got to stop throwing interceptions whether they’re picks, deflected, whatever. It can’t happen anymore.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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