Monday December 8th, 2008

Talk about your self-inflicted wounds in the NFC East.

Sure, what the Dallas Cowboys did to themselves Sunday evening at Heinz Field wasn't the same sort of damage that has allowed Plaxico Burress and the New York Giants to dominate the headlines in the last week or so, but it hurt and hurt mightily nonetheless. Everywhere you looked in the Cowboys postgame, there was another demoralized player or coach detailing the pain, lamenting the opportunity lost and shrugging at the question of how to pick up the pieces and go on from here.

It was very nearly the defining game of the Cowboys' season, but thanks to 17 Steelers points, all in the final 7:15, it wound up being just another hard-knock loss in a year that wasn't supposed to have too many Hard Knocks, at least after training camp.

"This one's on me,'' said dejected Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who threw the game-deciding interception to Deshea Townsend with 1:40 remaining, which the Steelers cornerback returned 25 yards for a touchdown and a 20-13 Pittsburgh win. "I hurt us tonight.''

"I cost us the game,'' countered Dallas tight end Jason Witten, the intended receiver whose slip out of the break on his pass route led to Romo's throw sailing high and right to Townsend, who waltzed into the end zone. "I just slipped. It's all on me. It wasn't Tony. He put it right where he was supposed to put it.''

"Our defense played great, they played their butts off,'' said receiver Terrell Owens, who scored the Cowboys' only touchdown. "But we (the offense) stunk it up. There's no excuse for it.''

Owens, as is his penchant in settings such as these, was telling the unvarnished truth. Dallas let this one get away, and there was no use denying it. The Cowboys were ever-so-close to rolling into next week's showdown with the first-place Giants with a four-game winning streak, a 9-4 record and some legitimate playoff-drive momentum. But they couldn't close the deal on the Steelers despite being up 10 points with less than half a quarter to go, and that's why there were plenty of players eager to fall on their swords in the Dallas locker room.

Given the Giants' surprising home loss to the Eagles on Sunday -- their first defeat at the Meadowlands after six straight wins -- the Cowboys could have really made things interesting in the NFC East by beating Pittsburgh. It would have been a two-game gap between the Giants (11-2) and Cowboys entering Week 15, with Dallas having the chance to close within one with two games remaining.

But now, well, the 8-5 Cowboys may not wind up making the postseason, but they'll, in essence, be facing playoff-type pressure in their last three games, while trying to hold off the hard-charging Eagles (7-5-1), Redskins (7-5), Falcons (8-5) and others in the battle for what is likely to be the final NFC wild-card berth. The Cowboys, with a tough remaining schedule of the Giants, Ravens and at the Eagles, didn't do themselves any favors with Sunday's late collapse.

"No question, we definitely have our backs to the wall,'' Romo said. "This is tough to swallow this one, because we had obviously a good opportunity in the second half. We didn't close the deal. We'll see at the end of the year, when the season's over. If we don't make the playoffs, it's (this loss) obviously going to be very damaging. If we get in, it probably won't matter much.

"We don't know how the season is going to end yet. Teams in this position have gone on to win the Super Bowl, and other teams in this position have missed the playoffs. But our story has not been written yet.''

Which is a nice segue for another damaging part of Sunday's loss to the Steelers (10-3): The Cowboys' display of premature celebration after their goal-line stand and stopping Pittsburgh on 4th-and-1 from the Dallas 1 with 12:26 left. It was 13-3 Dallas at that point, but certain members of the Cowboys seem to react as the story of the game had been written, and the day would definitely belong to the guys with the stars on their helmets.

Rest assured, the Steelers' sideline noticed that jumping of the gun, and it seemed to re-ignite Pittsburgh's intensity. The Steelers scored on their next two drives after the great Dallas defensive stand, getting a 41-yard Jeff Reed field goal and a 6-yard Ben Roethlisberger to Heath Miller touchdown pass to tie the game at 13 with 2:04 remaining. Then came the Romo interception on the second play of the ensuring Cowboys drive, his third of the game and crushing fifth Dallas turnover.

Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, looking ashen moments after the loss, called the defeat the toughest of his two-year Dallas tenure. Maybe he has forgotten that divisional-round egg-laying at home against the Giants last January, or maybe he knows that at least the Cowboys were in the playoffs at that point, and this game might keep them out of this year's tournament.

"It's a tough loss for us,'' Phillips said. "I don't know all the ramifications, but we're still in there and we're still going to fight. We're going to have to come back and play an even better team next week.''

It's hard to imagine the Cowboys defense duplicating Sunday's effort against the Giants next week. Dallas held Pittsburgh to three points in the first three quarters, forcing six punts in that span, recovering two fumbles and coaxing the Steelers into a field goal miss. Then, early in the fourth quarter came that exquisite goal-line stand.

"I don't know what more any of us could have done,'' said inside linebacker Bradie James, who was everywhere for Dallas with 11 tackles, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery. "We came out blazing, and controlling and dominating. But we just didn't finish the game.''

And because they didn't, the Cowboys themselves might be finished this season. Like Romo said, we don't know the ending to the story just yet. But as the weeks slide by, Dallas's margin of error is down to almost nothing. The Cowboys know they can't survive any more self-inflicted wounds. Either they dish out all the hurt the next three weeks, or the pain will be too much to overcome.

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