This is part three of the tenth chapter in our History of the Dallas Cowboys series. Previous segments in this chapter:
The Cowboys entered the 2009 season with a firm identity: Tony Romo and teammates could win games and compete with anyone in the league... until December. The September-November and post-November results from 2006-2008:
The “Cowboys can’t win in December” wasn’t just a meme; it was reality. Each of the previous three seasons the Cowboys entered December with legitimate hopes of deep playoff runs and each year the team then compiled one of the worst records in the league when the stakes got higher.
It was nauseating for fans who hadn’t seen the franchise win a playoff game in 13 years. As a result fans were somewhat skeptical entering the 2009 season. There was excitement surrounding the team’s first season in “Cowboys Stadium”. Oddly, the NFL didn’t choose to open the season in Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar palace, instead opting for a week two Sunday night tilt against the New York Giants.
The Cowboys entered the contest 1-0, having won their season-opener on the road over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The week two contest would be one in a seemingly never-ending series of high-scoring seesaw battles against the Giants. More often than not they ended in heartache for Cowboys’ fans. This game featured everything:
- The two teams combined for 64 points and 800 yards of offense.
- The Cowboys led 31-30 late despite a -4 turnover differential (three Romo interceptions and a Felix Jones fumble).
- A late, Marion Barber-fueled (4 rushes, 51-yards) drive concluded with a seven-yard Felix Jones touchdown to give the Cowboys a 31-30 lead with 3:40 remaining. A stop would likely win the game.
- The Dallas defense, however, allowed Eli Manning to march the Giants 56 yards on 11 plays, culminating with a game-winning field goal on the final play.
So, after losing the final game at Texas Stadium in 2008 the Cowboys also lost the team’s first game at Cowboys Stadium. The season was not off to an auspicious start. They would split their first four games to stand at 2-2 and there wasn’t a lot of playoff talk surrounding the team. Things looked pretty bleak the next week on the road in Kansas City with the team down 13 -3 late in the third quarter. Then a heretofore unknown player broke out of nowhere for the biggest pass catching day in Dallas Cowboys history.
Miles Austin had been a Cowboy for nearly three and a half years and had never started a game. Pressed into a starting role against KC due to an injury to Roy Williams, Austin single-handedly turned the Cowboys season around with a jaw-dropping performance:
- Ten catches on fifteen targets
- 250 yards receiving - a club record that stands to this day
- Two long touchdowns - first a 59-yarder to give Dallas a 20-13 lead with two minutes remaining.
- Then, after the Dallas defense allowed the Chiefs to march 74-yards for a game-tying touchdown, a 60-yarder in overtime to win the game.
It was a wildly unexpected coming out party for Austin, whose entire career to that point consisted of 23 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns. Remarkably, it wasn’t a one-game blip. Austin would immediately emerge as a legitimate number one receiving threat and put up one of the best, most productive runs by any Cowboys receiver in franchise history: starting with the KC game Austin would catch 119 balls over his next 19 games for 1,880 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Austin’s emergence triggered a promising four-game win streak that dissolved in Green Bay where the once potent offense was held scoreless for the first 59 minutes before a meaningless touchdown in a 17-7 defeat.
The offense struggled mightily the following week as well, with Dallas again being held scoreless for the first 57 minutes. This time, however, they eked out a win on a Patrick Crayton touchdown catch with just over two minutes remaining in an ugly 7-6 victory over the Redskins. Four days later the Cowboys defeated the Raiders on Thanksgiving for an 8-3 record and again looked in good shape for a deep post-season run.
But the calendar had turned to December and, well, the losing returned as well. First came an ugly road loss to the Giants that “featured” both a 74-yard catch and run by lumbering Brandon Jacobs and, after the Cowboys had closed the game to seven points, a 79-yard punt return touchdown by Domenik Hixon.
Dallas then faced a 9-3 San Diego team at home. Despite playing evenly Dallas would lose 20-17. The key sequence was the Cowboys’ inability to punch the ball in for a touchdown from the Chargers one-yard line. Three straight Marion Barber runs failed to penetrate the end zone and suddenly the Cowboys were 8-5, had lost consecutive December games and would next travel to New Orleans to face the 13-0 Saints team on a Saturday Night.
Expectations were low but from the first play of the game the Cowboys absolutely took it to the undefeated Saints. Dallas would need less than two minutes to strike, Romo hitting Austin on a 49-yard touchdown on the team’s first drive. They would score again on their next drive and the defense forced three consecutive punts for a 14-0 lead. A last-play field goal gave Dallas a 17-3 lead at the half.
The Cowboys would extend the lead to 21 points on their first drive of the second half with Barber punching in the touchdown from 2-yards to finish a 74-yard drive. Midway through the third quarter Dallas appeared in total control.
Things turned suddenly, however. Two Cowboys drives ended in punts. The Saints responded with two long touchdown drives to cut the lead to 24-17.
A methodical 10-play, 74-yard Cowboys’ drive then eventually sputtered at the Saints six-yard line with just over two minutes remaining. Nick Folk, however, missed the chip shot field goal, banging the ball off the upright. (Folk been absolutely terrific throughout his career until December of 2007 when he mysteriously got the yips and couldn’t hit anything. He started the season 14-17 on field goals but then went 4-11 and was cut after the Saints game). The Saints hopes remained alive and having diced the Cowboys up on the two previous drives there was every reason to expect Brees to lead yet another game-tying touchdown drive.
The Dallas defense stood stiff initially forcing a 4th-and-10 but Brees converted on a pass to Marques Colston. Finally, with only 12 seconds remaining and the Saints at the Cowboys 42-yard line DeMarcus Ware sacked Brees and Jay Ratliff recovered to end the game.
It was the best, most exciting regular season victory for the Cowboys in many years and provided a jolt to their fading playoff hopes. Not many of us could have known that it was the first victory in an highly impressive late-season run that would give the team it’s first playoff victory in thirteen years.
Dallas followed up the big win with a dominating performance over the Redskins, winning 17-0. It was the Cowboys first shutout since 2003 (also over the Redskins, naturally). That set up an odd match-up against the Eagles the following week. Both teams were already guaranteed a playoff spot and were also guaranteed to face each other the following week in the Wild Card round. Which team would claim the NFC East crown and earn the right to host the game was at stake.
The Cowboys again dominated, pitching a second consecutive shutout, holding the Eagles to only 191 yards, recording four sacks, forcing a turnover and holding the ball for more than 40 minutes. It wasn’t a contest. Now came the harder task, beating the exact same team the following week.
- Season: 2009
- Date: 2010.01.09
- Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
- At stake: advance to NCF Divisional round
- Result: win
- Score: 34-14
The game started much as the previous three games for the Cowboys with Dallas jumping out to a 7-0 lead. A long Miles Austin pass interference call set up a short touchdown pass to John Phillips. Donovan McNabb was still the starting quarterback for the Eagles. Michael Vick, fresh out of jail, would take occasional snaps, however. McNabb had yet to complete a pass when Vick hooked up with Jeremy Maclin for a stunning 76-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
Things then seemingly went from bad to worse on the next play from scrimmage. Romo combined a horrible decision with a horrible throw to toss an apparent interception. Under some pressure, Romo threw a duck off his back foot while falling backwards; the ball sailed far over the head of the receiver and was intercepted by Sean Jones and returned to the Cowboys 14-yard line. In the blink of an eye the game had completely turned around and Cowboys Stadium was filled with the “here we go again” vibe.
However, Wade Phillips wisely challenged the interception and a review revealed the ball had hit the turf before being secured by Jones. Dallas had dodged a major bullet. They would respond immediately. First Felix Jones ran for a first down with a facemask penalty moving the ball to midfield. Three consecutive completions to Patrick Crayton (18 yards), Roy Williams (17 yards) and Jason Witten (18 yard touchdown) set Dallas up for a 1-yard Tashard Choice touchdown that restored the Cowboys lead.
Philadelphia was never in the game from that point forward. Their next eight drives would yield only 102 yards and three would end in turnovers. Dallas, meanwhile, scored 34 points spread across seven drives:
- 4 plays, 55 yards, touchdown (Phillips from Romo)
- 10 plays, 85 yards, touchdown (Choice run)
- 8 plays, 51-yards (field goal)
- 3 plays, 18 yard, touchdown (Austin from Romo)
- 7 plays, 28 yard (field goal)
- 4 plays, 89 yards (Jones run)
The game was effectively over midway through the third quarter when Felix Jones electrified mammoth Cowboys Stadium with a scintillating 73-yard touchdown run. That made the score 34-7. A late Eagles touchdown in garbage time would make the final 34-14.
It was not only the Cowboys’ first playoff win since 1996 (a wild card round victory over the Minnesota Vikings known for George Teague’s multiple big plays). It was also a complete and thorough post-season obliteration of a division rival.
Cowboys’ fans had good reason to celebrate the run of domination and look forward to more success. The team had put together the best late-season victory run since the early 90’s. Since losing to the Chargers and falling to 8-5 on the season, they had run off four straight victories by overwhelming margins. The numbers:
Dallas was dominating teams in every manner, gaining more yards, generating more turnovers and scoring more points. They weren’t just winning, they were blowing teams out. The differentials illustrate the point well:
When you’re out gaining teams by 150+ yards and generating one-and-half more turnovers per game you’re going to be very hard to defeat. The foundation of the success came from the running game, where Dallas was winning decisively on both sides of the ball:
Here we see that the entirety of the 100-yard per game differential was coming on the ground. The Dallas ground game was imposing its will on opponents while the defense was smothering opposing rushers. This allowed the Dallas offense to use the entirety of its offense while the defense made opponents one-dimensional.
I felt much more confident about this team, which would travel to Minnesota the following week than I did the 2007 squad that hosted the Giants at Texas Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs.
- Season: 2009
- Date: 2010.01.17
- Opponent: Minnesota Vikings
- At stake: advance to NFC Championship
- Result: loss
- Score: 34-3
The well-oiled machine on display the previous four weeks was nowhere to be found in Minneapolis. The Cowboys’ first drive looked promising but then Romo, under moderate pressure, stepped up in the pocket, held the ball a tick too long, got hit and fumbled.
The defense held however when Demarcus Ware sacked Vikings’ quarterback Brett Favre. Dallas moved to the Vikings’ 35-yard line but Romo then fumbled the snap, derailing the drive and setting up a 48-yard field goal.
Sean Suisham had been a late-season pickup following the Nick Folk meltdown. Suishan missed the kick, giving Minnesota good field position.
Four plays later Sidney Rice caught a 47-yard Brett Favre pass for a touchdown. The defense seemed confused in multiple ways. First, cornerback Terence Newman didn’t get a jam on Rice and basically let him run by uncontested. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh appeared to be up near the line of scrimmage in an attempt to disguise coverage. He then had to turn and race back to guard Rice. He actually did well to catch Rice and run stride for stride with him but never turned around and Rice had a fairly easy touchdown catch despite tight coverage.
Dallas responded with a smart drive that set up a first-and-goal at the Vikings nine. On second down, however, Ray Edwards ran virtually uncontested around right tackle Marc Columbo, sacking Romo and derailing the drive. The Cowboys settled for a chip shot field goal.
The Vikings then embarked on an 80-yard touchdown drive culminating in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Favre to Rice. Marcus Spears had a chance to sack Favre on the drive but fell for the quarterback’s patented pump fake.
We may not have known it at the time, but the game was over.
Two plays later Doug Free would get confused on his assignment leaving Jason Witten alone to block All Pro pass rusher Jared Allen. That ended predictably with Allen destroying Witten, then Romo, causing a fumble and giving the Vikings outstanding field position for an easy field goal.
Down fourteen points the Dallas offense, which has been so effective the previous month, literally couldn’t move the ball. Nine offensive drives would net only 79 yards and result in zero points. The Cowboys’ drive chart is embarrassing:
- Missed field goal
- Field goal
- End of half
- Missed field goal
- Turnover on downs
- Turnover on downs
- End of game
The Cowboys’ ground game, which had been so effective, netted only 92 yards on 25 carries. Romo was sacked six times and was running for his life throughout the game. Whether he had time or not he still made mistakes, throwing an interception and twice fumbling.
The defense surrendered only 323 total yards. However, they allowed Favre to throw for four touchdowns and compile a 134 passer rating while recording no turnovers.
The final of 34-3 made it the second most lopsided loss in Cowboys’ post-season history (behind the team’s 38-6 loss at the Lions in 1991).
It was shocking. It was hard to believe that a team that had played so well for the previous month could play so poorly in every phase of the game. The team simply looked unprepared. They seemed to have no answer for the Viking pass rush and when forced to play from behind had no clue how to move the ball.
It was a shell-shocking, demoralizing, numb-inducing end to an up-and-down season that had looked oh-so-promising a few hours earlier.