Cowboys Might Be Heading Toward Another Collapse

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IDecember 7, 2008

Dallas wide receiver Patrick Crayton says Christmas came early for the Steelers.

Maybe so. But judging by Sunday's 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh, the Cowboys should brace for coal in their own stockings once again.

A franchise notorious for late-season swoons is heading down that road again after gift-wrapping this Steelers victory with a fourth-quarter collapse. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo even provided the bow: an interception that Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend returned 25 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 1:40 remaining.

No wonder Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he felt "sick" while watching his team's record in December/January games drop to 18-32 since 1997.

"You bust your tail and come away with a loss like this, it is kind of deflating," Crayton said.

And telling as well.

With the score tied at the two-minute warning, Romo's offense had a splendid opportunity to show that this December would be different. Granted, it wouldn't be easy as the Terrible Towels twirled and a frigid wind blew through Heinz Field-not to mention the challenge presented by the NFL's top-ranked defense.

But playoff contenders often separate themselves from the pretenders under those kinds of difficult circumstances. The Cowboys didn't.

On second-and-8 from the Cowboys 17-yard line, Romo threw to a spot where he thought tight end Jason Witten was heading. But Witten had slipped on his route, giving Townsend an easy interception.

Witten pointed at himself in blame as soon as Townsend crossed the goal line.

"I blew it," Witten said.

After Witten spoke to the media, it was Romo's turn to fall on the sword for throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. He also threw four consecutive incompletions on Dallas' final possession.

"We put ourselves in position to win," said Romo, who struggled with accuracy in a 19-of-36 passing performance. "If I had done a few things differently, we would have won this game. I take complete blame for that.  I hurt us."

Romo wasn't the only one who should be flogging himself for letting Pittsburgh score 17 unanswered points in the final 7:15. Special teams were poor, allowing a 35-yard Santonio Holmes punt return to set up a Steelers field goal. A defense that had excelled through the first 3 1/2 quarters allowed Pittsburgh to tie the score at 13-13 with an eight-play, 67-yard drive.

Dallas also squandered earlier opportunities to put the game away after outplaying a Steelers team that, at 10-3, ison the verge of clinching a playoff spot. That wasted the effort of Cowboys players like rookie running back Tashard Choice (166 total yards) and linebacker Bradie James (11 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery).

"There are big plays, but there are a lot of little plays that nobody notices," Witten said. "That's what determines games like this. As you go on in December, it's the little things that affect you."

The Cowboys entered this month on a three-game winning streak but have now left themselves little room for error. Dallas might need to win all three of its final games to reach the playoffs. That won't be easy considering its final three opponents (the New York Giants, Baltimore and Philadelphia) are a combined 27-11-1.

"This was huge," Witten said. "We all know what it would have been like to be 9-4 with three games to go. Now, we have to fight."

Added Romo: "Other teams have been in this position and won Super Bowls. Others have not made the playoffs. The story will be written at the end."

After Sunday, don't be surprised if that ending is all too familiar for the Cowboys.

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