Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stick a Bolt in 'em: Dal 17, SD 20

A second straight games full of missed opportunities has the once division-leading Cowboys now at 8-5 and in dangerous jeopardy of missing the playoffs, firing a head coach, and doubting the abilities of its franchise quarterback.

Dallas failed to punch in a game-tying touchdown on four straight plays from within the Chargers five yard line, and Nick Folk missed another field goal from the 40-49 yard range as San Diego won its eighth straight, beating Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, 20-17. And while it might be head coach Wade Phillips who will end up taking the ultimate fall for the Cowboys failures in December, the players failed to execute when the ball was put in their hands.

The Cowboys ran Marion Barber four consecutive times inside the Chargers 5-yard line on a drive in the second quarter, and each time the Chargers stopped the run. Three of those tries were from the 1-yard line. I wasn't a fan of Jason Garrett calling the back-to-back fade routes early in the season, but you can't fault an offensive coordinator for believing that one of the biggest offensive lines in the NFL can push forward three feet to get into the end zone. Sure, it'd be great to get a play-action pass worked into the mix, but if the Cowboys can't punch the ball from the 1-yard line on three chances, it's on the players.

And with kicker Nick Folk missing a 41-yarder in a ostensibly perfect hold of Tony Romo, the Cowboys simply have to go through the formality of cutting him and signing anyone else. I realize that plenty of guys on this team have a history of late-season struggles, but now that Folk is 4-of-11 on the year from 40-49 yards, the window to let Folk get back into his groove may be all but closed up for the holidays. He's made some clutch kicks in his career with Dallas -- no one is forgetting the 53-yarder in Buffalo two of them -- but where has that kicker been? Or could you make the argument that this season is all but lost anyway, so they might as well keep him on the roster. At the very least, Dallas better bring in a slate of kickers and make Folk audition for the part against a handful of competition.

Then again, when are you supposed to hold a kicker tryout when your new holder Tony Romo has plenty to work on with his offensive unit. Too often the Cowboys offense couldn't get a drive going, save the 99-yard march to wrap up the third quarter and tie the game, 10-10.

Of the Cowboys eight drives not including a kneel down to end the first half, four of those drives went four plays or less. Three ended with punts and one was the missed field goal after Dallas failed to move the ball after Terence Newman's interception.

The players executive was about as effective as the 3-D promotion on the video board, which didn't even make it through the third quarter.

The bend-but-don't-break defense couldn't stop the Chargers early or late, giving up two long drives in each of San Diego's first two and last two drives of the game. The Chargers were able to get ahead early, 7-3, and finished strong with 10 fourth quarter points. And while the injury to DeMarcus Ware will hurt this team's on-field talent level, the team's response to their defensive leader being carted off the field was almost as sickening. It took two plays after Ware went down for the Chargers to find the end zone.

A team that once stood 8-3 atop the NFC East is now at the mercy of the Eagles and Giants. The Cowboys have three remaining games: at New Orleans, at Washington, and home against Philadelphia. None of those games are locks. None of them look easy. And with another week of "why can't the Cowboys win in December?" talk staring them in the face, the Cowboys are again teetering on the brink of collapsing.

With the Cowboys 8-5 record, they are now behind the 9-4 Green Bay Packers (who own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas) for a potential Wild Card berth. While the Cowboys would have to fall a long, long way for their tiebreaker over the Falcons to come into play, the NFC playoff picture boils down to either the Giants/Cowboys/Eagles winning the NFC East and either one of those teams or the Packers missing the playoffs. Depending on how things unfold tonight in the game between New York and Philly, Dallas is in a dangerous situation heading into the final three weeks of the season.

A few more thoughts on what could prove to be the back-breaking loss of 2009:

+ New holder, same missed kicks
Tony Romo's return to perhaps the lowest point of his career didn't seem to negatively affect the quarterback. It almost seemed like a positive for the first Cowboys drive to stall, giving Romo a chance to get that first hold out of the way early, and not have his first field goal try come late in the game with any added pressure. Romo caught the snap, put the laces out, and Folk nailed the 31-yard field goal to put Dallas on the board first.

However, Folk couldn't convert on a 42-yard field goal late in the first half to help the Cowboys capitalize on a Philip Rivers interception in Chargers territory. Romo's hold appeared to be fine. Laces out. No bobble. Folk didn't give him a "what the heck" look like he did to Mat McBriar after last week's missed field goal. That one appeared to be all on Folk, and after the game Wade Phillips seemed to indicate Folk's tenure in Dallas could be wrapping up.

Nick Folk is now 4-of-11 on the season from the 40-49 yard range, and considering that's where the majority of the Cowboys kicks are coming from, that's not a good thing. I'd assume any football team has enough athletes where a handful of guys could make the 18- to 25-yarders. But Folk isn't the automatic youngster he once was, and that could land him out of a job by next week.

+ Worse for the Ware
DeMarcus Ware's sprained neck isn't going to help a defense that too often gave up big plays and long drives to the Chargers. While the defense did hold the ground game in check for a majority of the afternoon, Rivers and his receiving corps proved too tough for the secondary. And without Ware going after the quarterback, the Cowboys didn't generate enough pressure to get Rivers off the mark.

The good news is that Ware is out of the hospital and while his status for Saturday is unknown, it seems he's doing better than when he was carted off the field. After Ware left the field, Rivers threw two passes against Gerald Sensabaugh to get the Chargers into the end zone.

+ Miles Austin
With his touchdown catch on Sunday, Miles Austin now has 10 on the season, tied for the most in the NFL with Vernon Davis and Larry Fitzgerald. He's one yard away from his first 1,000-yard season and is third in the NFC in receiving yards. His six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown continued to keep him among the NFL's elite this season, and while the Cowboys playoff hopes are fading with back-to-back loses, the chances of Austin making the Pro Bowl continue to rise.

+ Roy Williams
Another week full of Roy Williams sightings, as #11 caught four passes for 74 yards and was able to help the Cowboys move the chains for first downs on three of his catches, including the 4th & 4 on the opening drive. While he has faded into the background of the big picture of what is wrong with the Cowboys, it's hard to jump on the anti-Roy bandwagon after the last two games. No glaring drops in each of the last two weeks.

+ Defense
The Cowboys defense held San Diego's offense to 20 points, and while it might have been not low enough, it was the Chargers lowest offensive output of the season. The shame of it all was that Dallas failed to stop San Diego on a late fourth quarter drive that chewed up too much clock and really put the game away. The Cowboys punted the ball to the Chargers after a drive stalled in Dallas territory, and San Diego took over with 9:13 on the clock. From there, it was a steady dose of LaDainian Tomlinson runs that Dallas couldn't stop. LT ran the ball on nine of San Diego's 15 plays, and Rivers mixed in three pass plays that were each completed for first downs. When the drive finally ended with a Nate Kaeding field goal, Dallas got the ball back with no timeouts left, 1:56 on the clock, and a two-score deficit. The real shame of the drive was not only that Dallas couldn't get San Diego off the field, but they failed to even put the Chargers in 3rd & anything until the Bolts were already on the Dallas 25-yard line, well within field goal range for Kaeding.

+ Running Backs
Yesterday Felix Jones led the Cowboys with 51 yards on the ground on 10 carries. Any guesses as to the last time the Cowboys had a 100-yard running back? You'll have to go back all the way to Week 2 in the loss to the Giants where Marion Barber ran for 124, and Jones tacked on another 96 for good measure. Since that time, the Cowboys running game has been schizophrenic at best. I'm not quite sure what the logic is for mixing three backs into the backfield, and while I understand that two backs keeps everyone fresh, the Cowboys seemed to execute this best in 2007 when Julius Jones and Marion Barber rotated by drive, not by play. The four straight carries by Barber inside the 5-yard line were disappointing both on him and the offensive line. That 15-play drive for Dallas that stalled at the 1-yard line featured seven runs by Barber, five by Jones, and two by Tashard Choice, which looks great on paper, but it didn't yield any points. And isn't that what really matters.

Playoff Standings
Despite the second consecutive loss, the Cowboys still hold the 6-seed in the NFC playoff picture and do control their own destiny the rest of the way. Easier said than done with a trip to New Orleans and two more division games left on the schedule, but a return to the playoffs is still possible. Dallas is 8-5, a game behind the division-leading Eagles and the current 5-seed Packers, who hold the tie-breaker over Dallas. The Giants are a game back with the tie-breaker over the Cowboys, so any misstep to give the Giants ground bounces the Cowboys from the playoff picture.

Next week the Giants are in Washington, and they will already know the outcome of the Cowboys game from Saturday night. If Dallas loses in New Orleans, don't expect the Giants to fall asleep at the wheel against the Redskins with a chance to get into the playoff picture on the line. For the Cowboys, they may be catching the Saints at a good time, as the Vikings are two games back for home-field with three to play, and New Orleans has played down to it's last two opponents, winning by only three points in each game. It's a short week for Dallas, but it will still feel equally long with so many questions about this team's ability to finish a season still unanswered.


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