You'll have to forgive Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for feeling like he's been transported to some sort of NFL purgatory resembling the movie Groundhog Day.
For the third straight season, the Cowboys ended the year at 8-8. For the third straight season, they were eliminated from the postseason in their last regular-season game. And for the third straight year, it was done at the hands of an NFC East opponent -- the New York Giants in 2011, the Washington Redskins last year, and the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, in a 24-22 game that might have gone Dallas' way were it not for a few strange twists of fate.
With Tony Romo out for the season due to a back injury -- a cataclysm announced on Friday -- the Cowboys were left with the services of Kyle Orton, the veteran who had thrown just 15 passes in the last two seasons. He wasn't bad under the circumstances, completing 30 passes in 46 attempts for 358 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Of course it was the final interception Orton threw to Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin with 1:49 remaining that ended the game and provided yet another recurrent memory -- Dallas' quarterback giving the ball away late in the game to keep victory just out of reach.
Orton threw late to Miles Austin, and Boykin, who has played impressively most of the season, was there to make the play.
"It looked like the ball was behind Miles," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Probably Kyle saw a little color in front -- they had some guys up at the line of scrimmage in kind of a pressure look, and then they dropped those guys out. He didn't really cut it loose and throw it in front of Miles. It looked from my vantage point like Miles won on the route, and the ball was just behind."
"We knew it was do or die," Boykin told NBC's Michele Tafoya. "We knew they were in the red zone, and we had to get a huge stop. I was kind of baiting [Orton] -- I knew they were going to try and get some quick things going early. Luckily, I was able to make a play -- it's a huge win for Philly, and it's a huge win for us. Just a great moment."
Indeed it was, but that great win didn't come without some stress. Had Dallas made its two-point conversion after Orton hit Dez Bryant on a slant for a 32-yard touchdown on fourth-and-9, the Eagles would have faced a tie game. Philly went three-and-out after that conversion attempt and punter Donnie Jones booted the ball back to the Dallas 32-yard line, giving Orton one chance to muster a charge to a field goal or touchdown, eliminating all of the late-game demons that had preceded him. It took exactly one play for everything to look the same as it's been for many years.
One thing that's new for the Cowboys, and it's not pleasant at all -- this marks the first four-year playoff drought for the franchise since Jones bought the team in 1989.
As for the Eagles, the win concluded the first phase of a thundering validation for an organization that blew up the coaching staff after 2012's 4-12 season, replacing Andy Reid with Chip Kelly. It was thought that Kelly, the former Oregon mastermind, would bring a gimmicky pass-heavy game plan to the NFL, but he's done exactly the opposite. In fact, Kelly's systems and schemes allowed LeSean McCoy finish the season as the NFL's leading rusher with 1,607 yards. He was the first Eagles player to do so since Steve Van Buren took the NFL title in 1949.
In addition, Kelly powered the Eagles to 10 wins by placing second-year quarterback Nick Foles in position to succeed, and for the most part, Foles did. However, Foles had his rough moments against the Cowboys -- he was pressured frequently, and Dallas did a fine job of bottling McCoy up at the line of scrimmage to prevent screens. That said, when the Eagles needed him most, Foles came through once again. He finished the game with 17 completions in 26 attempts for 263 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
"The guys believe," Foles told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. "We believe in each other. When the offense was struggling, the defense picked us up. It was another great team win, and that was Philadelphia Eagles football right there."
McCoy was able to exploit Dallas' leaky defense on the ground, though, gaining 137 yards on 20 carries.
"It's amazing," McCoy said. "Because for all the accolades and the stats and the records, if we don't win today, none of that means [anything]. I'm just blessed to be with my teammates and go out here and win a big game, and now, it's on to the playoffs."
The Eagles will host the New Orleans Saints in the first round of those playoffs, and Boykin is part of a defense that will certainly be tested by Drew Brees, just as it was pushed to the limits by a Dallas offense that actually outgained Philly's, 417-366. First-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis is starting to put his stamp on this squad at just the right time. It isn't always pretty, but it seems to work at the right times -- which seems to be a good encapsulation of the Eagles' season to far.
"It's gonna be a good one," Boykin said. "They've got a lot of weapons, but we're gonna be amped. We're back at home ... it's gonna be one for Philly. We're enjoying the moment, but we've gotta get back to work on Monday."
At least the Eagles have a Monday to look forward to, and their first division title since 2010. For the Cowboys, this particular agony of defeat is all too familiar.
"Obviously, our goal is to make the playoffs," Garrett concluded. "It was a great opportunity to win our division here. I thought our team really fought and battled hard and overcame a lot of different obstacles to get to this point, and within this ballgame. It's a good football team we lost to, and we give them a lot of credit. Chip Kelly has done a wonderful job, and he's got really good players, and they're deserving of winning the NFC East.
"We had a great opportunity today, and we just came up short."
Yet again. And after the game, Jones reiterated his support for Garrett to remain as the team's head coach ... which must seem to aggrieved Cowboys fans like more of the same. [si-nfl-player id=7bc65e31754847d9893785459d09f1da]