Hope was high for the Dallas Cowboys coming into the game against the Carolina Panthers. The Philadelphia Eagles had been demolished by the Detroit Lions earlier in the day, and the team was poised for that run so many were dreaming of. But it all turned into yet another disaster as Tony Romo's collarone was injured once again and the season for the Cowboys was almost certainly ended with the 33-14 loss.
Clearly, there was a little too much faith placed in Romo as the savior of the Cowboys' season. He came in with a reputation for being brilliant at diagnosing defenses and reading the field. But from the first minute of the game, he was not seeing defenders as he threw three picks in the first half, two for touchdowns. The first one came with just under a minute gone in the game. putting the team in an immediate hole that would just get deeper as the game continued. Luke Kuechly got two of the picks. The Dallas offense was only able to mount one decent drive before intermission, and came up short in the red zone, aided by a missed defensive pass interference call in a game that saw several times that it looked like flags should have been thrown on the Panthers.
The turnovers and points gifted to Carolina were the difference in the game, because the Dallas defense was mostly able to limit the Panthers to field goals, including a gutsy stand at the end of the first half when the Panthers had three shots from the Cowboys' 2 yard line. With only seconds on the clock, Carolina passed on all three tries despite having time outs to use, and all were stopped. Rod Marinelli's bunch did their job by only yielding 9 points before halftime, but the terrible play from Romo created a daunting 23-3 deficit going into the second half, when Carolina would have the ball first.
What was most disheartening about the first half was that Dallas seemed to lose their composure on offense so quickly. After getting a field goal to cut the lead to 10-3, Romo just looked like he was trying to make things happen, forcing balls into coverage where he did not seem to see the defenders at all. The Panthers came into the game leading the league in takeaways, and they lived up to that reputation, while the Cowboys again could not find one. One again they came close on a punt that bounced off the leg of a Panther, but he realized what had happened and pounced quickly on the ball.
Earlier in the day, we saw a team that looked like it had given up in the second half, but it was clear that the Dallas defense was still playing hard. On the Panthers' opening possession, Tyrone Crawford got the first sack of the game, putting Carolina in a ludicrous fourth and 40. On the ensuing drive, Dez Bryant finally got involved in the offense, catching two passes in succession, but once more Romo seemed to be unable to deduce what the defense was doing. On a third and 3, he appeared to check into a screen, expecting a blitz, but the Panthers did not come and stuffed Gavin Escobar for a loss, forcing another Dan Bailey field goal and leaving the Cowboys in a three score hole.
Although the defense was stout for most of the game in the red zone, they gave up too many third and long conversions. Time and again, Cam Newton would stand in the pocket as the pass rush failed to get to him and then complete a pass of more than 20 yards to keep a drive alive, eating up clock as the Panthers seemed to move between the 20 yard lines with comparative ease. They actually seemed to have a better chance of stopping Carolina on third and short. As the second half wore on, Carolina was patient and used an effective running game to burn time, keeping Dallas' offense on the sidelines and shrinking their time to try and mount any kind of a late comeback.
The Dallas running game was mostly stymied during the game, which did not help things since it forced the Cowboys into a one dimensional offensive plan. It was a case of different things feeding each other, none of them working to Dallas' advantage. And that need to rely on the pass set up the play at the very end of the third quarter that led to Romo apparently injuring his collarbone once more. That put the Cowboys' offense once again in the hands of Matt Cassel, and we know what that has been like. Although he engineered a nice drive late, it was the definition of garbage time. The Panthers were able to work against a tiring defense, and although they kept fighting, everyone wearing the Star knew that the game was completely out of hand. Even a blocked field goal after the two minute warning was just meaningless.
And with Romo re-injuring his clavicle, so is the season. It is a bitter end given the great hopes that everyone had for this year before the season started.