It was a brave effort, but once again the Dallas Cowboys had their hearts broken. And it was largely the same story. They lost the turnover battle, with at least four chances to take the ball away just eluding them. After a strong performance, the defense let one long pass completion put the New York Jets into position for the winning field goal with only seconds remaining. And despite struggling in the kicking game, the Jets managed to get the winning field goal. The last sputtering hopes for the playoffs died with the 19-16 loss.
But it was one of the best games the Cowboys have played since Tony Romo was first injured, and given what happened, you have to ask whether Jason Garrett stuck with Matt Cassel too long. Had he not, things might have gone differently down the stretch.
Sometimes, making a change at quarterback is all that really matters. It is not so much the relative talents involved, but just getting someone else out there. It is a move that can give the team a lift if the passer being replaced seems to be struggling. And it can be especially effective if the problems of the struggling QB's problems seem to be as much between the ears as anything else. For the Cowboys, that looked like exactly what played out in the second quarter of the game, when the highly anticipated (by many) Kellen Moore took over for a beleaguered and confused-looking Cassel. It appeared at first like he was just going to be a continuation of the passing ineptitude, but with under two minutes to go in the half, he led a quick drive down the field, completing three of four passes, all to wide receivers, capped by a ten yard touchdown completion to Dez Bryant. It may not indicate that Moore is really capable of being a successful NFL quarterback, but he demonstrated multiple things in that one drive that have been largely missing for the Cowboys under Cassel.
But even more important for the Cowboys was the way their defense was playing. The pass rush harassed Ryan Fitzpatrick relentlessly. They frequently stuffed the running game, particularly on the series following Cassel's interception. Three times the Jets had the ball with three or less yards to go inside Dallas' 5 yard line, and three times the defense stopped them. In the first three quarters, the Jets had four drives start on the Cowboys' side of the 50, and all they got from them were three points. Except for the touchdown scored by Bilal Powell, they almost completely shut down the New York running game.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys running game was very effective. Darren McFadden went over 100 yards for the second week in a row, and his runs were much more consistent. He had one 33 yard scamper, but was seldom stopped for just a yard or two. And Lucky Whitehead contributed his own splash play on another 33 yard gainer, this a reverse called early in the game. The Jets were known for their run defense, but the Cowboys found holes. One play that it would have been nice to see in some earlier games was a third-and-two call where Moore tossed the ball back to McFadden and he went wide around right tackle to get the first down with ease.
The question remained as to whether the Cowboys could win the game or not. They managed a one point halftime lead, thanks to a missed extra point and field goal by the Jets' Randy Bullock, but in the fourth quarter New York went away from the run and Fitzpatrick started moving the team. They took a 16-13 lead with under nine minutes in the game, and the Cowboys had to hope Moore could at least get into field goal range. Moore threaded a needle on a somewhat risky pass to Cole Beasley, and went back to him on fourth-and-two to overcome consecutive penalties that had put him in first-and-25. He got Dallas just close enough, and Dan Bailey banked a 50 yard field goal off the right upright to tie it up with only 1:55 remaining.
But that one long pass play would be the final blow, aided by an interception on a desperation heave by Moore. The Cowboys are now officially eliminated from the playoffs. It is time to look to the future - which may include Moore as the backup quarterback.