This one hurt.
The Cowboys had every opportunity to close out one of 2008's premier teams, earning a signature win and alerting everyone in the NFL that Dallas deserved to be in the playoffs come January. It all evaporated in 7:20. The Cowboys 13-3 lead disintegrated into a 20-13 loss in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, and the teams two most consistent, reliable players found themselves in the middle of it all.
When it mattered most, Tony Romo and Jason Witten, the two rocks of the offense, personified the frigid Pittsburgh weather. They went cold.
Both players spoke out to take the blame for a crushing defeat that brought back the upset feeling in my stomach that first surfaced after a touchdown off a blocked punt return gave the Cardinals a win over Dallas back in October. But unlike that game, Dallas had this all but wrapped up.
They were on their way to 9-4 and a wild card berth. It was in the bag. Think 2006 Mavericks up by 13 with 6:28 left in the third game about to go up 3-0 in the finals. We just witnessed the football version.
And from here, if this team responds similarly to those 2006 Mavericks, a disappointing struggle to an embarrassing letdown, the 7:20 mark of the 4th quarter will be the point at which it began crumbling.
Pittsburgh kicked a field goal to pull with in a touchdown, 13-6. Dallas followed with a three-and-out, and the Steelers calmly drove 67 yards in three minutes for the game-tying touchdown. Two plays from scrimmage later, Deshea Townsend is celebrating his game-winning interception in the end zone, and the Cowboys found themselves wondering "what if."
The loss dropped Dallas to 8-5, and despite now holding the final wild card spot thanks to Atlanta's conference loss to the Saints, the Cowboys once again started December off on a sour note. I'm not disturbed by losing on the road to the Steelers in December without Marion Barber and a slew of other injuries. I'm more worried about the lack of a signature win the Cowboys have had this season. Furthermore, this loss is the first I can think of in Romo's tenure the Cowboys lost when they should have won since the game in Landover against Washington in 2006 (blocked Cowboys FG, 15-yard penalty, Redskins kick for the win). Just look at the Cowboys wins this season. Arguably, only the wins over Philadelphia or in Washington were any good.
So while perhaps only two of those wins were of any substance, the losses have been so ugly that the Cowboys haven't even had great chances to win. Yesterday's loss in Pittsburgh was the Cowboys' first loss that they really gave away all season. The blowouts in St. Louis and in New York were abominations at the hands of Brad Johnson and a sloppy defense. But the losses in Arizona and against Washington were games the Cowboys really had no business winning when the fourth quarter came around.
Cowboys 2008 wins:
Week 1: @ Cleveland, 28-10
The Cowboys dominated a weak Cleveland team which somehow someway was the first team to beat the Giants this season.
Week 2: Philadelphia, 41-37
This offensive shootout unfolded in front of one of the loudest Texas Stadium crowds in recent memory in the venue's final home opener. Dallas trailed 37-31 early in the fourth quarter before scoring 10 unanswered point to move to 2-0.
Week 3: @ Green Bay, 27-16 (Torn up Tundra)
The rematch of last season's top two NFC teams showcased Dallas to be what everyone expected out of training camp, the class of the conference. Turns out the Packers aren't the same 13-3 bunch as last year. After yesterday's loss at home to the Texans, now how does the Cowboys first ever win in Lambeau look?
Week 5: Cincinnati, 31-22 (Fast Felix)
One week after a close loss to the Redskins at home, the Cowboys beat the Bengals in a game where the majority of the post-game focus was on how bad the Cowboys looked. Raise you hand if you'd trade ugly wins for morale victories? This doesn't look all that bad compared to the consecutive losses to the Cardinals and Rams that would follow.
Week 8: Tampa Bay, 13-9 (The Bucs stopped here)
No doubt the best team Dallas has beaten in 2008. The first-place Bucs held the Cowboys to the lowest offensive output ever in a Cowboys victory, but the defense buckled down to secure the only win of the brief Brad Johnson era. This certainly wasn't a complete win, but might be the win Dallas needed most. The Boys went 1-2 without Romo, but going 0-3 with him would have been devastating.
Week 11: @ Washington, 14-10 (Cowboy Up!)
The best feel-good win of 2008 came in Romo's return to the lineup. Marion Barber bruised through the Skins defense in the fourth quarter to reaffirm his role as the NFL's best closer. Amazing defense led by Jay Ratliff kept Washington QB Jason Campbell on edge all night. If the Cowboys have a signature win in 2008, this is probably it.
Week 12: San Francisco, 35-22 (Enjoying popcorn)
TO's 213-yard explosion against the lowly 49ers gave the Cowboys consecutive wins for the first time since September. Still, the secondary looked far from playoff-ready.
Week 13: Seattle, 34-9 (Thanksgiving Feast)
The secondary again looked ordinary, but that didn't stop the Cowboys from dismantling a bad Seattle team. Wins over a 2-9 should be expected, not celebrated.
Against Washington in a late September game in Irving, the Cowboys surrendered three second-half field goals, allowing Washington to take a 26-17 lead with 3:22 left in the game. Yes the Cowboys were an onside kick away from a game-winning drive, but Washington had controlled the tempo all day long. In Arizona, Dallas neeed 10 points in the final two minutes just to force overtime.
So the loss in Pittsburgh was truly the first game the Cowboys let slip away this season. Sadly, with that game may have gone the team's playoff chances. That is not to say the Cowboys can't beat the Giants, Ravens or Eagles in the final three weeks of the season, but already having a win in the bag against a team likely to end up with a first-round bye would have put plenty of confidence in the bank for this Cowboys team. Instead, the Cowboys might be looking for a bailout down the stretch.
Here's my takes from the game:
+ The Tashard Choice experiment worked much better than either the Brad Johnson or Brooks Bollinger experiments. At least the Cowboys know this is one position on the offense where depth is not a problem. Choice gained 166 total yards (88 rush, 78 rec) against the league's top defense. Not too bad for a rookie. You'd like to think, however, that the Cowboys missed Marion Barber's punishing style in the fourth quarter when Jason Garrett decided to get conservative and hold onto the lead. Still, amazing game by the rookie, including a solid blitz pick up of the Steelers equivalent to DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison.
+ Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. This might have been Romo's worst game since the Monday Night Miracle in Buffalo, only with the real-life ending instead of last season's fairy tale. His three interceptions and lost fumble weren't even the worst part. The fact that he overthrew receivers all night long really hurt the Cowboys. Yes, the final INT for TD finished this off, but the Cowboys could have had an even more comfortable lead if Romo had hit some of his targets.
+ However, you have to take the bad with the good when it comes to Romo. He was able to buy time scrambling around until finding TO in the back of the end zone for the Cowboys only TD. And frankly, if he had completed that left-handed fling to Roy Williams, we'd be gushing over the highlights for ages. First thing I could think of was the great line from The Princess Bride, "I'm also not left handed."
+ The Cowboys defense once again put up a solid performance -- eh, for 55 minutes. They finally got after Ben Roethelisberger in the second half, sacking him five times. Dallas gave up 70 yards on the ground, but surrendered 67 yards on the final drive to allow the Steelers to tie things up. Still, the goal line stand early in the fourth quarter was huge.
+ Hello, Bradie James. Easily the best game we've seen him play all season long. He made the 4th down stop on the goal line stand, recovered a fumble, finished with 11 tackles, and personified heart throughout the game. The one bad play he made came when James tried to go Roy Williams (SS version) and turn his body into a missile against Steeler TE Heath Miller, landing the biggest playmaker on the Cowboys defense for the game face down on the turf. When Joe Buck said, "Bobby Carpenter will take his place" did anyone else tense up? James missed only one play, and Jay Ratliff got a big sack on Roethelisberger on 3rd down. Pittsburgh got a bank-shot field goal to pull within one score.
+ Pacman Jones returned to the aid of a much-depleted secondary. He broke up some passes, but he still doesn't really help the Cowboys out as much as they'd like on special teams. He was lucky to fall on a muffed punt that he shouldn't have even been fielding. Any high school special team player or special ed student knows to let the thing go inside the 10. The refs ruled Cowboys football, but Pacman paid for his mistake, as he was roughed up on the play when Andre Fraizer yanked him out from the bottom of the pile.
+ The Cowboys went 0-3 on fourth down conversions. In the first quarter, Deion Anderson could have made it if he followed the right side of the line. Instead he came back to the left and was stopped. Reminiscent of Julius Jones closing his eyes as he gets to the line of scrimmage. The first play of the second quarter (2nd and 9), Choice caught a ball in the flat and stumbles for 7 yards. Call it the crap turf of Heinz Field, but if Choice doesn't stumble, it's a first down. Incomplete pass from Romo on 3rd and 2 puts Cowboys into another 4th down, which the Cowboys failed to convert.
+ Once again, I'd like to reiterate - especially in a game where both the trusty duo of Romo and Witten claim the blame for the loss - the most consistent, dependable, clutch players on the Cowboys are kicker Nick Folk and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur. After watching Steelers kicker Jeff Reed miss a first-quarter field goal wide right, Folk kicked one toward the same upright in the second quarter. The '07 Pro Bowl kicked the ball left and let the wind bring it back right down the middle for 3 points. If Folk isn't the NFC Pro Bowl kicker again this season, then kickers shouldn't go to the Pro Bowl.
+ Here's the list of players who we saw get banged up during the game: Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Jason Witten, Montrae Holland, Keith Davis, Bradie James. Brad Sham even mentioned that L.P. Ladouceur was slow to get up after a Cowboys punt. When the injury bug bites, it bites hard.
+ On a lighter note, did Wade Phillips look like his mommy overdressed him for a cold day before sending off to school. The guy looked like a freakin overdressed toddler with a paranoid mom. Either that or George Costanza in The Dinner Party episode of Seinfeld. Back off, puff ball, it's not my car!
+ Penalties continue to hurt. The 12 men on the field and a neutral zone infraction kept the Steelers moving toward the goal line in the 2nd quarter. Those are two bad penalties, but the defense held the Steelers to a field goal after Pittsburgh started with the ball on the Dallas 23. Solid bend-but-don't-break performance.
+ Speak of good defense, nice game from Orlando Scandrick. Picks up his first career sack in the 3rd quarter. Also called a smart timeout when Pacman was out of position in the 1st quarter.
So where do the Cowboys go from here? The 8-5 team currently holds the final wild card berth, but with three tough teams ahead, the Cowboys will need more stout defense combined with reliable offense. If Dallas suffers another turnover stroke like they did in Pittsburgh, giving the ball away on four of their first seven possessions and losing the turnover battle -3, they can kiss any and all playoff hopes good bye. Embrace the good from this game and block out the bad. Next week the world champs return to Dallas, and you can bet they won't be too happy after getting stomped at home by the Eagles.