ARLINGTON, Texas — There's different ways to view a fourth-and-1.
On the first possessions of Sunday's game, with Dallas holding the ball at the Denver 38-yard line, the Cowboys looked at those three feet as an opportunity.
Denver's defense saw it as an early turning point.
The Broncos' offense viewed it as disrespect.
What happened on that fourth-and-1 — and the three ensuing fourth downs for the Cowboys during Denver's 30-16 win — was nothing short of game defining.
Dallas failed to pick up the fourth down, as Justin Simmons crashed into the backfield to tackle Ezekiel Elliott for a loss. After a Denver drive went only backward, the Broncos' defense held again on another fourth down, as Dak Prescott's fourth-and-2 pass hit the ground with the Cowboys on the edge of the red zone.
Two scoring opportunities for the league's top-ranked offense. No points.
"Urgency and energy," Simmons said of the team's start on defense. "Their offense is one of the top offenses. … If I remember correctly, we're second to last in terms of starting fast. And so another emphasis this week was, we've got to start fast. When we're put out there on the field, we've got to be able to start fast and give our offense some momentum.
"Both times when we had those fourth downs, they happened fast, but you say a quick, 'Hey, man, this is the game.' That's the mindset you have to have. I'm just proud of our guys, man. The way they fought today. The energy. The perseverance to work through different situations. It was a great team win."
The Broncos' offense wouldn't waste the second opportunity, marching 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 6-0 lead and signal to the Cowboys that their risk was Denver's reward.
"You take the field with a little anger, honestly," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "It's like, 'Hey, man, they're going for it because they're saying our offense is not going to score or something.' We talked about it in the huddle, and we used it as motivation. … It's one of those deals where you take the field and OK, you have a little added motivation to it. You can see that today."
Wide receiver Tim Patrick, who caught four passes for 85 yards and a touchdown, was a bit more direct.
"Disrespectful," Patrick said of Dallas going for it. "That [expletive's] disrespectful. They trying us. And that's what happens when you try us."
After the first two drives, the Cowboys changed their tune. Facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line and trailing 6-0, Dallas punted the ball back to the Broncos. On the sixth play, Bridgewater found Patrick for a 44-yard score that gave Denver a two-possession lead and essentially changed the complexion of the game.
The Broncos' defense, with a lead to protect, kept coming after Prescott. They gave up just one first down on each ofDallas' final twodrives of the first half. The Cowboys had just 109 yards in the first half as Denver shut out a team before the break for the second time this season. At halftime, Prescott was just 5-of-14 for 75 yards and a 54.2 quarterback rating.
"Those guys had the right mindset, which you have to when you play against an offense that is that good," Head Coach Vic Fangio said of the defense. "They were ranked in the top three in damn near every category there was. I don't remember seeing such a good offense that was balanced like they were, watching them all week. For us to come in here and do that, it's just kudos to the players. They had the right mindset. They bought into what we had to do to have a chance to slow them down, and we did more then slow them down."
Pat Surtain II held up in coverage. Kyle Fuller bounced back to have a pass defense and earn a game ball. Caden Sterns picked off a pass. Jonathon Cooper recorded two sacks. Nate Hairston broke up a pass. Kenny Young flew around.
All around the defense, guys made plays.
The Cowboys didn't score until there were just over four minutes remaining in the game, and they didn't get particularly close, either. Two other fourth-down attempts fell short as Denver's battered defense — which was missing so many players that Fangio said he "ran out of guys" at the end — held strong.
"I just felt we had the right stuff to give ourselves a chance," Fangio said. "We just had to do it the right way, call it the right way — which I'm in charge of, so you know that's going to be taken care of. I just felt … good about it. Teams just haven't played them the right way. They are super talented and they may score 35 points the rest of the season in every game, because they're really good. They've got talent at every position. How many times did we come close to sacking Prescott and we don't get him down? That's talent. That's not luck, that's talent. They're a great team, and I don't expect them to lose many more games."
An offense that averaged 32.1 points per game — third in the NFL entering Week 9 — was held to just 16 points, and both Cowboys touchdowns came in garbage time. The Broncos' offense, meanwhile, put up 30 for the first time this season.
And that success on both sides of the ball may well have been sparked by a pair of fourth downs.
"Everybody wants to go for it on fourth down, right?" Fangio said. "Fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2 — they cite all the numbers, so on and so forth. But when you don't get them, it hurts. And we were the beneficiary of the hurt."