FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tony Romo stood on the field and licked the fingers of his throwing hand, a quarterback searching for a few more throws to make. But it was already over, the Gillette Stadium clock showing all zeroes, the latest unsatisfying Cowboys game logged in the books: New England 20, Dallas 16.
Romo's eyes were empty, and it was easy to understand why. The Cowboys had New England beat, until they didn't.
"We just have to find a way," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "We have that attack mindset, we just have to find a way to get in the end zone. Three [points] is not enough."
In what has been the story of the Dallas season, the Cowboys (2-3) were in position to win, only to fritter away their chances against New England (5-1).
Dallas took a 16-13 lead with 5:13 left, forced the Patriots into a three-and-out, and appeared to be in position to send Tom Brady to his first home loss since Nov. 12, 2006. But from their own 28, Dallas went conservative, calling two running plays that netted minus-3 yards. On 3rd and 13, the Cowboys right tackle Tyron Smith was called for a false start. One more running play, and Dallas punted the ball back to Brady, who marched the Patriots downfield for the game-winning with touchdown.
"Whenever you get the ball into the hands of a player like Brady at home, you've got problems," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. "We are up here on their field and we knew what the odds were, so we flipped a coin and it came up against us. We know what [the Patriots] are about and we knew what our challenge was here. If you were in a playoff game, you'd probably drive it home. You always second guess whether or not we should have tried to run a little offense down there instead of running it three times."
By turning conservative, Dallas wasted a strong effort by its defense, which had already picked Brady off twice, sacked him three times and held him to a paltry 82.3 quarterback rating. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had Brady looking ordinary for 58 minutes.
"I thought our effort was great," Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said. "I thought it was fantastic. Guys made some really big plays in the game in crucial situations, but it is obvious at the end of the game, we didn't finish. That is disappointing."
Said Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears: "Rob is awesome. We play defense the way he coaches it. We love him, absolutely."
Romo, after throwing an interception in his second throw, settled into a decent rhythm, completing 27 of 41 passes for 317 yards and a 1-yard touchdown to Witten.
Romo has had a choppy 2011 season, but it would be unfair to saddle him with the blame.
"It's never good enough when you lose," Romo said. "These games come down to a couple of plays sometimes. It just [stinks] when you're on the other end of it. As a competitive guy, you always want to make plays at that time of the game, though, I was comfortable with the [play] calls. You can always second guess whatever you do."
Said Jones: "This game was decided right down there at the end, and I am so proud of these players, the way they competed tonight. We rolled the dice at the end and went conservative rather than try to get some points and it bit us."
For this latest edition of the Dallas Cowboys, it always seems to.