Cowboys' playoff hopes take hit in loss

IRVING, Texas —Say this about the 2008 Dallas Cowboys: They sure do make things interesting.

A season that began with Super Bowl hype, then seemed lost because of sloppy play, injuries and infighting, was salvaged enough for Dallas to go into Saturday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens on the verge of a wild-card berth.

Getting an extra boost from the emotionally charged atmosphere of the final game at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys jumped ahead with an early touchdown—only to end up losing 33-24.

Thus, more drama.

Instead of spending Sunday hoping for the right combination of losses to clinch a playoff spot, Dallas players were rooting for losses by Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia just to keep alive their playoff chances. The Buccaneers complied, losing at home to San Diego. The Falcons and Eagles were playing later Sunday.

“That’s not what good teams want to have happen,” tight end Jason Witten said. “Good teams find a way to win these games. To let that opportunity slip, it’s unacceptable.”

Dallas (9-6) closes the season at Philadelphia. The Cowboys might go into it with a shot at the fifth seed, or could win and still miss the playoffs, all depending on what happened Sunday.

“It’s all just part of a full season,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “We’ve got to find a way to grind it out and get into the tournament. If you get in, you have a chance. It’s a matter of doing the things it takes to get you in position. We obviously need a little help now.”

While Romo and Witten talked, the never-a-dull-moment theme played out around them in the locker room. Terrell Owens was munching on popcorn and team owner Jerry Jones kept repeating his own words while professing the job security of head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

“I don’t have any inclination about any coaching changes. None. None. … I don’t see that as an issue,” Jones said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Asked whether things might change if Dallas misses the playoffs, Jones said, “Let’s try again (with this staff) if we don’t make it. Seriously.”

“I mean, you don’t think for one minute that Bill Parcells Jr. is going to come in here and do any good do you?” Jones continued. “Think about it. Think about it. … This is exactly how I feel right now, and it’s not that fragile. It’s just not that fragile.”

After challenging reporters to “look at how many people change and then how many end up winning the Super Bowl,” then questioning the logic of spending millions on a coach just because of his reputation (like, say, Parcells) or because of his success in college (like, say, Jimmy Johnson), Jones went back to the repeat-speak: “That is not a consideration, just not a consideration.”

Phillips and Garrett certainly wouldn’t want their fate decided by the Ravens game.

Garrett’s offense was out of whack the first three quarters, racking up more punts (six) than first downs (five). Baltimore had Romo fooled with a blitz scheme that sent someone at Romo without being blocked nearly every time he dropped back. The pressure forced bad decisions and bad throws, some coming even on the plays when his protection held up.

Things finally clicked in the fourth quarter and the offense began stacking up big plays. That’s when the defense allowed even bigger ones. On the final two handoffs to an opposing running back, the Ravens tied the record for the longest run by a foe in the 313-game, 38-season history of Texas Stadium, then broke that record. Willis McGahee went 77 yards, then Le’Ron McClain went 82.

“Devastating,” linebacker Greg Ellis said. “It was like, ‘What the heck?’ You’re talking about back-to-back.”

Plays at the end always get the most attention, but they’re never the only ones that doom a team.

In this game, it was also Romo’s risky interception when he should’ve been playing it safe just before halftime; Romo overthrowing Miles Austin for what would’ve been a long touchdown early in the third quarter; Ken Hamlin failing to wrap up a fumble he was all over; Baltimore’s fake field goal that led to a touchdown; and rookie Tashard Choice bobbling out of bounds a third-down option pitch, forcing Dallas to settle for a field goal early in the fourth quarter.

“As a whole, we stunk it up,” Owens said.

The loss drops Dallas to 1-2 in December. That guarantees a 12th straight season without a winning record in this pivotal month. It also could mean a 12th straight season without a playoff win, stretching what is easily the longest drought in club history.

“I wish I could put a finger on what it is that’s causing us to let it slip like we have. But I can’t,” Witten said. “Obviously you get excited if (playoffs hopes remain alive), but it’s bigger than that. We’ve got to figure out a way to play better football because this isn’t going to cut it.”