ATLANTA — As plenty of off-field drama swirled around them this past week, the Dallas Cowboys arrived for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons missing the centerpiece to their rushing attack and in need of a victory to remain within reasonable striking distance of first place in the NFC East.
They departed Mercedes-Benz Stadium smarting from a 27-7 loss exposing how vulnerable the reigning division champions are without suspended all-pro running back Ezekiel Elliott and leaving them three games behind the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cowboys (5-4) produced their fewest points this season in Sunday's outing, the first of three games played over a 12-day stretch. Dallas managed just 233 total yards, much of it coming with the outcome secure, amid disjointed possessions as its three-game winning streak ended.
"There are no excuses," Coach Jason Garrett said. "There are no explanations. The next guy's got to get in there and play and got to play up to standard, and we didn't handle the adversity of the day well enough."
By early in the fourth quarter, Dallas had more yards in penalties (54) than rushing (53) from starting running back Alfred Morris, the replacement for Elliott. Quarterback Dak Prescott absorbed eight sacks, the most the Cowboys have allowed this season, and was under duress throughout with the running game all but absent.
The Cowboys finished with 107 rushing yards, a far cry from what they had become accustomed to over the previous four games with Elliott. In that time, last season's NFL rushing champion had been averaging 126.5 yards.
"The Falcons' defense did a great job today," Morris said. "They have a job to do just like we do, and they rose to the occasion, and we didn't."
After taking a 7-0 lead on Prescott's four-yard run to cap Dallas's second possession of the game, it was the Falcons who moved the ball much more crisply in an effort to right a season that lately had been in danger of unraveling.
Loser of four of its previous five, Atlanta (5-4) got 215 yards and two touchdowns on 22-for-29 passing from quarterback Matt Ryan, last season's league MVP, to stay within two games of first-place New Orleans in the NFC South.
Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn set a franchise record with six sacks, the most in a game by any player this season, overwhelming backup left tackle Chaz Green. Clayton also forced two fumbles with Green pressed into service because of a groin strain to inactive starter Tyron Smith, a two-time all-pro selection.
"When you have really good players, some of the best in the league, and they're not out there, certainly that makes a difference," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "But one of the things we really pride ourselves in doing is next man up, let's get back out there. We believe in our system of football, offensively and defensively. Yeah, it's harder when your key players aren't out there."
An offensive line hailed as perhaps the most efficient in the league last season performed nowhere near that level with Elliott serving the first game of a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after an investigation uncovered an alleged incident of domestic violence that he was not prosecuted for and has denied.
The league initially handed down the suspension in August, but Elliott appealed. A federal judge in Texas granted the NFL Players Association's request for a preliminary injunction, clearing the way for Elliot to play at the beginning of the season.
But a federal appeals court in New Orleans overturned the Texas court's decision on the grounds it lacked proper jurisdiction because the union filed its case there before NFL-appointed arbiter Harold Henderson resolved Elliott's appeal under the sport's collective bargaining agreement.
The case moved to New York, and the league filed a lawsuit seeking to have Henderson's ruling affirmed. Herndon had upheld NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's suspension.
A federal judge in New York granted Elliott and the NFLPA a temporary restraining order that expired when U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla denied the union's request for a preliminary injunction.
Elliott then was permitted to play last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game Dallas won, 28-17, but after another series of legal proceedings began serving his suspension Sunday.
Elliott is not allowed to be with the team until Christmas Eve unless a court decides otherwise during the next appearance Dec. 1. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft reportedly is leaving the country to begin serving his suspension.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, played not only under the cloud of Elliott's suspension but also for the first time since owner Jerry Jones threatened to sue fellow owners over a contract extension for Goodell.
"Every week in this league's a fight," Witten said. "We know it's going to be tough, and we've got to be able to stay together and weather the storm and just continue to find ways to get better and win when you have a couple guys down. No excuses. That happens across the league. We just weren't able to make enough plays at critical times, and they did."
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