To be a Dallas Cowboy fan, at this moment, is a test of a person's faith. When all outward signs point to a team in collapse, you have to turn inward to find any kind of belief. On Christmas Day, we witnessed the dismantling of a football team. I'll be reviewing the game tape later today, and we can talk about individual players who performed poorly. But as a team, the Cowboys showed a distinct lack of the abstract quality some call the killer instinct. This intangible manifests itself in the form of a team that welcomes the defining moments in a season and takes full advantage of them. The Cowboys are shrinking violets this season when it matters most.
When New Orleans came to town, it was a marquee matchup of the teams destined to be #2 in the conference, second only to a very good, but flawed, Bears team. This was a moment begging for the killer instinct. The time was ripe to put a foot on the throat of the rest of the NFC and to show the Bears they had real competition for the NFC Championship. Nothing was guaranteed by winning that game, but losing it guaranteed they still had to prove themselves. Losing it in the way they did, losing it by completely getting out-classed on the field was an outward display that the killer instinct was absent. No one denies Dallas has the talent to do great things this season, but this team has yet to learn the art of winning when the stakes are the highest.
In the NFL, there are plenty of second chances. One week's death leads to another week's resurrection. The Cowboys got another shot at the big one - a defining game - this time for the coveted NFC East championship, a home-field playoff game, and some restored pride for an organization that has been on the bottom in the East for most of this decade. This was a chance in front of a huge audience to prove this team could beat one of its rivals in the biggest game of the season for both teams. Win this game, and you've developed the killer instinct. You understand what it takes to succeed at a high-level in the NFL. This game had mock-playoff written all over it. This was the test-run. The fact that the Cowboys failed so miserably is enough to shake the last remaining foundations of any fan's belief.
Dallas has had big wins this season. Beating Carolina on the road in Tony Romo's first start was significant; it told the team that they could win with Romo. Beating the undefeated Colts was a huge confidence boost; the team knew they had the talent to play with anybody. The win against the Giants in the Meadowlands built on that momentum and set them up to win the NFC East. All those wins set the Cowboys up for the chance to do something special this season.
NFL teams aren't truly tested until the play in December. That is the crucible that steels a team for the playoffs to come. Twice now, the Cowboys have had the opportunity to do something special at their home stadium in December, and both times have turned in efforts that reek of also-rans. Losing those games by being utterly dominated in every phase of the game leaves very little room for the belief that they can become contenders again.
But it's the NFL, so nothing is over until it's over. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? But having any kind of faith that this team can be counted on when everything is on the line is getting near impossible. There are no more practice runs. They play Detroit on Sunday, and by the end of that day our position in the standings could look very different. We could go all the way from losing to Detroit and basically packing in a season - even though a playoff game would still need to be played; to winning and still capturing the NFC East if Philly tanks against Atlanta. We don't know who or where we'll play in the post-season, but we do know that will be the next test of this team's killer instinct. Fail that test, and the real soul-searching begins.
Update [2006-12-26 17:57:55 by Grizz]: Apparently, not everyone is an Animal House fan. I was ripped on another board for being ignorant or insensitive for thinking the Germans actually bombed Pearl Harbor. Let me make plain what I thought would be obvious, I was using a classic line from Animal House uttered by the immortal John Belushi.