FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Sean Lee wasn’t on the field for the crazy Kansas City play that threatened to ruin an otherwise strong performance from the Dallas defense.
It turned out to be a microcosm of how important the 2016 All-Pro linebacker is for the Cowboys, whose three-game winning streak coincides with Lee’s return and a dramatic improvement on his side of the ball: fewer points, more turnovers, more key stops.
“Boy, tremendous difference when Sean Lee is out there,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said after a 28-17 win over the Chiefs and their third-ranked offense. “Not to take anything away from anybody, but he makes things happen.”
Lee missed two games with a hamstring injury, and the Cowboys lost both at home despite scoring at least 30 points in each.
Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams won 35-30, followed by Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay 35-31 when Rodgers took the Packers 75 yards in 62 seconds after Dak Prescott had guided the Cowboys to the lead with just 1:13 remaining.
The Cowboys (5-3) have allowed averages of 15 points and 299 yards during the winning streak. They next visit Matt Ryan and NFC champion, albeit struggling, Atlanta (4-4) on Sunday.
Then it’s the first of three straight home games in 12 days starting against NFC East rival Philadelphia, the division leader, and Carson Wentz, who has an NFL-best 23 touchdown passes. Dallas, the defending division champion, had the best record in the NFC last season.
“We’re trying to build to be that championship defense,” said Lee, the playmaking weakside linebacker. “And we’re seeing signs of it. But until we’re there, until we’re causing more turnovers and dominating, we’re going to continue to work.”
Dallas had gone three full games without a turnover when Lee returned against San Francisco and the defense forced three fumbles, recovering two. The Cowboys recovered another one on special teams.
Byron Jones had a clinching interception in the final minute of a win at Washington, and the Cowboys forced Alex Smith’s first interception of the season to end Kansas City’s last realistic hope Sunday.
Lee was watching when the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill took an underneath throw on the final play of the first half and weaved through seven Dallas defenders inside the 25 for an improbable 56-yard touchdown.
The Cowboys gave up another touchdown and lost the lead on the first possession after halftime before Lee’s unit re-established control with a key stop between two long scoring drives for Dallas.
The eighth-year player was on the field, though, when Kansas City took the lead with a touchdown to start the second half. After Dallas retook the lead, Lee’s unit forced a quick punt that helped the Cowboys regain the control it looked like they had lost with Hill’s TD.
“He’s always around the ball in the running game and the passing game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “But his impact goes far beyond that. There’s an intensity he brings that also pervades the defense.”
The Cowboys had to rely too heavily on Jaylon Smith while Lee was hurt. Smith missed his entire rookie season recovering from a devastating college knee injury, and has struggled adjusting to the NFL game.
Dallas also benefited from the return of middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who injured a knee in the preseason. With Hitchens and Lee available alongside Damien Wilson, Smith has had a season-low 17 snaps in consecutive games.
More experience helped the Cowboys limit the big-play capability of the Chiefs — except for Hill’s stunner with the Cowboys set up to defend a traditional desperation pass.
“If you look at the last three games, the sacks, the turnovers, the plays on the football, they’ve been way up,” Lee said. “In this defense, an attacking defense, you have to make those plays.”
The Cowboys make more of them when Lee’s on the field.
NOTES: DT Brian Price will have season-ending knee surgery after getting injured in the second half against the Chiefs. ... WR Dez Bryant has ankle and knee issues and WR Terrance Williams is dealing with an ankle injury after a season-high 141 yards receiving. Garrett said they are day to day along with LT Tyron Smith, who left the Kansas City game late with a groin injury.