ARLINGTON, Texas — Say what you will about the 2012 Dallas Cowboys, but at least they keep it entertaining. Trailing 31-17 in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the span of three minutes, 40 seconds to force overtime for the second consecutive week.
And when they won the toss, it was hard to imagine the Saints keeping them out of the end zone. But that’s exactly what happened, and Drew Brees quickly capitalized in the Saints’ 34-31 win at Cowboys Stadium.
But the outcome was rendered meaningless based on the New York Giants’ 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
So when the Cowboys (8-7) travel to Landover, Md., to face the Washington Redskins Dec. 30, it will be a winner-take-all game for the NFC East crown. The Redskins beat the Eagles, 27-20, to improve their record to 9-6 heading into the season finale.
The Cowboys stuck to this season’s script Sunday by leaving themselves no margin for error. But the day began with a report from FOX’s Jay Glazer indicating that Jason Garrett would return as head coach next season no matter what happened in the final two games. Standing in the middle of the locker room following the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that news about Garrett didn’t come from him. But at this point he doesn’t foresee anyone replacing Garrett.
“But seriously, to be real serious about it, I have no thoughts about making a coaching change,” Jones said.
Something tells me those words won’t soothe Saints fans, who’ve been kept dangling while Payton mulls his options. If the Cowboys lose next Sunday and Sean Payton remains a coaching free agent, this story’s not going away. You get the feeling that Jerry will leave the door open as long as Payton doesn’t have a deal with another team in place.
For now, Jones is holding out hope the Cowboys can beat the Redskins and get on a roll in the playoffs. He watched quarterback Tony Romo lead another improbable comeback late in the fourth quarter Sunday. But he also saw Rob Ryan’s patchwork defense get worked over by Drew Brees and his receivers — especially on third down. Given plenty of time in the pocket, Brees helped the Saints convert on 11-of-19 third downs. Romo was also able to put up big numbers, but the Cowboys were only 2-of-10 on third downs. Brees was 37-of-53 for 446 yards and three touchdowns. He completed at least seven passes to four different receivers, with Marques Colston leading the way with 10 catches for 153 yards.
The Cowboys had Erik Frampton making his first start since he was a senior at Washington State in 2006. He played well in that Apple Bowl game against Washington, but he struggled against the Saints’ playmakers. And he wasn’t alone.
The game turned late in the third quarter when Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray fumbled at his own 7-yard line. The Saints scored three plays late on a 5-yard pass to Pierre Thomas that gave them a 24-17 lead. Last week, Murray fumbled inside the Steelers’ 5-yard line. It’s a disturbing trend for a player who didn’t have ball-security issues in college.
“He’s just got to hold it up more securely through the end of the down,” Garrett said of Murray. “In each of the cases it was after the initial stop, they kept him up and the ball came out. So, he’s got to be much more aware of that and that’s important in big plays in the game.”
As has been the case much of the season, the Cowboys’ offense was at its best when forced into desperation mode late in the fourth quarter. Romo hooked up with Dez Bryant on a 41-yard pass to put the Cowboys in scoring position with 4:20 left in regulation. Bryant finished with nine catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns, although much of his damage came in the first half.
Romo, who was 26-of-43 for 416 yards and four touchdowns, connected with Miles Austin on a 19-yard touchdown to tie the score with 15 seconds remaining. But when the Cowboys couldn’t cash in on that first possession of overtime, even the optimistic Jones knew it was curtains.
“We knew giving the ball back, we were in trouble,” said Jones.
Rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne was able to poke the ball away from Colston on the next drive, but the ball bounced forward 22 yards before being recovered at the Cowboys’ 2-yardline by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Cowboys have gotten a lot of those breaks this season, but it wasn’t happening Sunday. And that explained the dejected look on Claiborne’s face as he described the forced fumble.
“It was pointless,” he told me. “What did it get us?”