More than anyone else, Tony Romo will be blamed. It was Romo who lived up to a false archetype by throwing a "classic Tony Romo" interception from his own red zone with less than two minutes to play in a tie game.
But that was Romo's only mistake in a game in which he outperformed the hottest quarterback in NFL history. It would be incredibly unfair for Dallas Cowboys fans to pin their Week 5 loss to the Denver Broncos on Romo, considering that he posted a passer rating of 140.0 while leading the offense to 48 points.
The truth is that this would have been a blowout had Dallas played anyone else in football. The Cowboys came three points short of knocking off the NFL's best team. The defense deserves to take more heat than Romo, considering that it surrendered 51 points, but again, the Denver offense is close to unstoppable. And in the defense's defense, it was able to force two turnovers and intercept Manning for the first time all season.
Romo deserves some blame, because that was an ill-timed pick. And the defense deserves some blame, because...well, forcing the Broncos to punt once or twice would have been helpful. But if we're pointing fingers, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has to take some of the blame.
Garrett and Bill Callahan did have a fantastic approach on offense. They recognized how hot Romo's hand was, and they didn't hold back. But it was Garrett who ultimately robbed Romo and that red-hot offense of a final chance to win the game.
After Romo's interception, Denver picked up 22 yards on three plays to set up a 3rd-and-1 on the Dallas 2-yard line. With the Cowboys out of timeouts and less two minutes on the clock, Dallas had to either stop the Broncos for a loss or let them score. One or the other.
The alternative—Denver picking up a first down but not a touchdown—would basically end the game. It would give the Broncos a chance to essentially kneel down three times before attempting a game-winning field goal of less than 30 yards.
Entering Week 5, 67 field goals had been attempted from that range this season, and all 67 were successful. And in the past decade, 96.3 percent of field-goal attempts of less than 30 yards have been good.
Of course, in this case, Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno ran for one yard, converting the first down. And four plays later, Matt Prater kicked the game-winning 28-yard field goal. Romo never had a chance to atone for his error.
Football is fast-paced, emotional and passionate. It's easy to get caught up in that, and hindsight's a bitch, but good coaches don't ignore math. Either Garrett failed to realize that the logical approach to that situation was to have the defense sell out to either stuff the Broncos or let them score, or he didn't care.
Either way, it was a mistake.
Garrett and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin should have had clear instructions for all 11 Dallas defenders. If Moreno hit the line of scrimmage with even a little momentum, they should have let him walk into the end zone. That would have given Romo and the offense about a minute and a half to respond.
Garrett also should have instructed Kiffin to run something resembling a jailbreak blitz. All or nothing. Time the snap count and either make a Troy Polamalu-style superman tackle for a loss, or come up empty-handed and hope your smoking hot offense can get it back.
Again, hindsight. And I know, there's a lot to think about in those moments. And I also know that such tactics run counter to the natural instincts of NFL defenders. But I don't care. As soon as I saw that it was 3rd-and-1, I knew what had to happen.
I like to think of football as a human chess match. You can't merely be good, but you also have to be smart. By even touching Moreno at or beyond the line of scrimmage on the penultimate play Sunday evening, the Cowboys weren't smart.
That's on the head coach.
Dallas might have lost regardless, but by failing to utilize the proper strategy in the final moments, Garrett made it official.