Tony Romo (bottom) exhibited the same old problems against the ball-hawking Bears. (EPA /LANDOV)
What did the Cowboys and their fans have in common on Monday night? Neither of them showed up.
In front of thousands upon thousands of raucous Bears fans in Jerry Jones' home stadium, the Cowboys turned in a dismal performance, a 34-18 loss, that was equal parts self-inflicted wounds and Chicago opportunism.
An early defensive struggle turned in the second quarter when Charles Tillman notched a pick-6 off Tony Romo, on a play where Romo and Dez Bryant suffered a clear miscommunication. One quarter later, his team down 17-7, Romo was victimized again, as he tried to escape pressure in the pocket and instead muffed the ball right into the hands of Lance Briggs for another Chicago defensive touchdown.
Before, after and in-between, the Cowboys were a mess, a cornucopia of dropped passes, blown coverages and downright inexplicable mistakes.
The Bears took full advantage of just about every mistake, earning those "Let's Go Bears!" chants that rained down at JerryWorld throughout the final quarter. All told, Chicago forced five turnovers, each coming on a Romo interception.
At least two of those cannot be blamed on Romo. Bryant appeared to run the wrong route on the early pick-6 and Kevin Ogletree swatted a slant route into Major Wright's arms later, with the Cowboys in the red zone.
The other interceptions? Go ahead and point the finger at Romo. But there's plenty of blame to go around for the 2-2 Cowboys.
Chicago wasn't exactly a well-oiled machine from the get-go, either. The Bears mustered just three offensive points in the first half and, at one point, bordered on a total sideline implosion as Jay Cutler blew off offensive coordinator Mike Tice following a frustrating series.
Tillman's touchdown proved to a game-changer, though. From there, the Bears looked every bit the Super Bowl contender many had them pegged as prior to the season.
And a lot of that started with Cutler, who came out of halftime firing bullets. On the opening possession of the second half, with the Bears clinging to a tenuous 10-7 lead, Cutler connected on four passes to three different receivers for a total of 71 yards. He topped it off by hitting a wide-open Devin Hester in the end zone for a touchdown.
"We started off a little bit sloppy, but the defense put us in great spots," Cutler told ESPN after the game, as he stood alongside Brandon Marshall; Marshall turned in a seven-catch, 138-yard performance that he finished by scoring a late TD.
Cutler's lone mistake over the final two quarters came when he coughed up a fumble deep in his own territory. The very next play was Briggs' back-breaking scoop-and-score, which put Dallas in an insurmountable 24-7 hole.
"We know he's going to throw the ball, and we know who he likes to throw it to," Briggs said of Romo. "It all starts up front. You get pressure on the quarterback, you get him to throw the ball a little bit early, a little bit higher and give your back seven a chance to make a play."
For the Cowboys, who have a bye awaiting them, the next two weeks will be filled with questions. Tops on the list for Dallas fans, no doubt, will surround the quarterback position.
Romo has been in the league since 2004 and is in his seventh season as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Every QB has an off night from time to time, but Romo is supposed to be beyond these games at this point in his career -- he's supposed to be better than to allow one or two lapses to turn into a nightmarish outing.
But he could not right the ship on Monday night. And the lack of cohesiveness for this team, especially on offense, has reached critical mass.
The Cowboys had 13 penalties last week in a sloppy home win over Tampa Bay, including six false starts. They followed that up Monday with another head-scratcher -- Bryant, for example, had multiple passes slip through his fingers, in addition to running a stop-and-go route when Romo was throwing a stop pattern.
It's baffling, really, to see Dallas going through the motions like this, suffering through the types of mental lapses you'd expect to see from a team undergoing a coaching change or overhauling the roster. This is not what playoff contenders look like. This is not even what this very Dallas team looked like just three weeks ago during an emphatic victory over the Giants in New York.
Something has gone terribly awry since then.
The Bears enjoyed their trip to the Cowboys circus on Monday, and that serves as a reminder of just how quickly perceptions can change in the NFL. Two weeks ago, the Bears turned in a lethargic effort at Green Bay. Heck, two quarters back, Chicago was suffering through some of the same issues as Dallas on offense.
Now, the Bears sit at 3-1, tied atop the NFC North, with Matt Forte slowly getting healthy at running back, Cutler spreading the ball around on offense and the defense returning to classic Chicago form.
The NFL has seen this defense before: one that may not have an endless supply of Pro Bowl talent, but presses offenses into mistakes nonetheless.
That's what happened Monday night in Dallas. The Bears waited for their chances -- and the sloppy, mistake-riddled Cowboys were more than accommodating when it came to providing them.