Bryant’s injury hurts Cowboys’ playoff hopes

The Dallas Cowboys’ improbable climb back into the NFC playoff race has occurred during the best stretch of Dez Bryant’s young career. Now, there’s a good chance Bryant could miss the final three games of the season with a fractured left index finger that he suffered in the third quarter of Sunday’s 20-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Sources told FOXSportsSouthwest.com on Monday that it might take a couple of days for a decision to be made. Bryant visited a hand specialist Monday afternoon and the Cowboys hope he can avoid surgery until after the season. A source close to Bryant said that he was willing to play through the injury, but Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said at Monday’s news conference that any decision would be made in the best interest of the wide receiver’s long-term health. ESPN was first to report Monday that the finger was in fact broken.

“It’s a medical decision first and foremost,” Garrett told reporters Monday afternoon. “The doctors are going to say, ‘Hey, this is what it is, and this is what we feel like you need to do,’ and then we’re going to say, ‘OK, well what are the other options,’ like you do with any injury, and you go forward and you make your best decision, not only for now, but for the future.

“Dez is very passionate about playing. Anyone who’s been around him knows that. He actually hurt his finger prior to catching that touchdown pass that was such a difference-making play in the game. He’s just one of those guys. He loves to play. He’s very emotional about the game, very passionate about the game, so we’re going to do everything we can to give him a chance to play. At the same time, there’s a medical decision as well that we have to factor into this thing, and we’ll do the right thing.”

The Cowboys are already significantly compromised on defense because of injuries, and Bryant’s injury would be difficult for the offense to overcome. He has 33 catches for 525 yards and seven touchdowns over the past five games. Quarterback Tony Romo recently told 103.3’s “Ben and Skin Show” that Bryant had done a “180” when it comes to preparing for games. Romo threw a couple interceptions early in the season that appeared to be Bryant’s fault for not running the proper routes. But in recent weeks, the two have been on the same page at crucial moments in games. In the only loss over the past five games, Bryant almost single-handedly got the Cowboys back in the game after they trailed 28-3 at halftime to the Redskins.

He told me after the win against the Eagles that Romo had taken him aside late in the game and told him how great they could be together if they continue to stay on the same page. And Bryant has also made strides off the field after having family violence charges conditionally dropped against him last month.

If Bryant’s season is finished, it would mark the second time in three seasons he’s ended up on injured reserve. He broke his ankle against the Indianapolis Colts in December 2010 and had to miss the rest of his rookie season.

Over the past few weeks, Bryant has been able to keep his poise even when he hasn’t been targeted as a receiver. He had a quiet day Sunday until he erupted with huge catches in the fourth quarter, including a 27-yard touchdown that trimmed the Bengals lead to 19-17. Bryant had already injured his index finger a few plays earlier when he was tackled after making a 6-yard catch across the middle. He probably made it through the rest of the game on adrenaline, but now the Cowboys have to make sure that playing through the pain won’t compromise his future with the organization.

If Bryant can’t play, Miles Austin will once again become the primary receiver. It would also create more opportunities for Dwayne Harris, Kevin Ogletree and Cole Beasley. The Cowboys have Andre Holmes on the practice squad, but he certainly didn’t do anything to distinguish himself during the preseason.

For now, the Cowboys hold out hope that Bryant will be able to continue his season. Without him in the lineup, it’s hard to imagine them running the table and grabbing a spot in the playoffs.