The law of averages. The Cowboys have been the cardiac, comeback kids for the last month and a half. It's gotten them back in the playoff race as they won five of their last six games in heart-pounding action. Today, they once again gave their fans a few unexpected murmurs, coming back from 14 down with under four minutes remaining to force overtime. Unfortunately, they weren't able to complete the journey this time, falling to the New Orleans Saints 34-31 on a short, 20-yard overtime kick by Garrett Hartley. The loss dropped Dallas to 8-7 on the season, a full game behind the Washington Redskins going into the season finale next Sunday at Fed Ex Field.
After the furious late rally, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant couldn't connect on third and five and the Cowboys were forced to punt it away. After getting on the edge of field goal range, Drew Brees found Marques Colston over the middle. Rookie CB Morris Claiborne stripped Colston and the ball bounded 20 yards downfield to the 2-yard line. Unfortunately, Jimmty Graham beat out Eric Frampton to the ball and after the reception was confirmed by review, the Saints had an easy field goal to win the game.
The Cowboys still have an opportunity to control their own destiny. Should the Giants lose either of their last two games (they are trailing the Ravens 14-7 as I type this recap), the winner of next week's game wins the NFC East. A win would have eliminated the Giants from the playoff picture. [CORRECTION] Dallas has extremely slim wild card possibilities. If Giants 2-0, Minnesota loses to Green Bay, Chicago loses to Arizona or Detroit and Dallas wins, Giants win East, Cowboys #6 seed).
Dallas started off extremely listless, allowing the Saints offense to control the action early and often. New Orleans started with an 80 yard touchdown drive and then missed a field goal with a chance to go up 10. The team finally awoke to start the second quarter as Tony Romo hooked up with Dez Bryant for a play-action 58-yard bomb for the tying touchdown. Five plays later, Romo and Dez would connect for their second 58 yard score; this time on a quick slant where Bryant broke two tackles before racing for the score.
The Dallas defense was too downtrodden to hold the lead though, as they struggled all game to generate pressure, contain Saints running backs and cover the middle of the field. An early loss of ILB and signal caller Ernie Sims was made worse when Alex Albright left the game with a knee sprain (he'd return) and then finally when DeMarcus Ware left the game for good after aggravating his shoulder sprain. The defense never gave up, however, forcing punts down the stretch to get Dallas a chance as the clock ticked down under five minutes.
Tony Romo went to work, finally returning to targeting Dez Bryant. Romo would finish with 416 yards and four touchdowns against no interceptions; passing the 4,500 yard mark for the first time in his career and setting the Cowboys franchise record. Dez Bryant's 41 yard catch on Dallas' final scoring drive put him over 200 yards on the day (ended with 224 on 9 catches). A little later on fourth down Romo would find Miles Austin falling in the end zone for the game tying score with 15 seconds to go. Austin had dropped two crucial passes earlier in the quarter with Dallas down by two scores.
Bryant was unstoppable and many will question the Cowboys not feeding him the ball for a very long stretch of the second half.
Austin and Murray were threatening to share offensive goat honors at that point. Earlier in the half, after Dwayne Harris had let a punt be downed inside the five, Murray coughed up the ball on the first play and the Saints recovered. It was the second consecutive week that Murray had crucial goal line fumble; this time pinned against his own end zone. The Saints would go in and score a touchdown three plays later to take the lead 24-17.
After another punt, New Orleans drove the field 98 yards to stretch the lead to 14; their third scoring drive of over 80 yards (and second over 90). That's when the Cowboys tried to invoke their magical spell again, but this time it wasn't enough.
In the end, though, it's incredibly tough to place blame for the loss. Sure, the defense barely was able to hold the Saints down, but the Saints offense has never been one that teams normally find all the answers for. Today, the defense was unable to generate pressure. It's always next man up, but it can't be understated that Dallas played much of the game with their 5th and 6th string inside linebackers and that's the area of the field where the Saints relentlessly attacked. They were also playing Sterling Moore, Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah in the defensive backfield and each had some tough stretches. I got tweets from fans calling for Rob Ryan's head, however no one is saying what exactly they expect him to do differently. Players don't even know which units their in on, as there was even a play when Dallas had only 9 on the field. On third and goal.
So Dallas sits back and waits for the final result from the Giants-Ravens game and hopes to own their fate in next Sunday's game. Should the Giants lose, just know that I predicted the Cowboys finish the year at 9-7. Cross your fingers and don't touch that dial.