Cowboys’ playoff hopes getting dark

ARLINGTON, Texas When the Cowboys led the Redskins, 3-0, in the first quarter Thursday, the skies were blue through the open roof at Cowboys Stadium.

Then dark clouds rolled in and a light rain began. Even if you’re not into omens, it was pretty spooky that the darkness coincided with the Redskins taking the control of the game.

Washington scored 28 points in the second quarter of an eventual 38-31 win over Dallas.

With that loss, a dark cloud has grown even bigger over the Cowboys. Doubts have also grown just a little bigger about head coach Jason Garrett’s ability to weather this storm.

The Cowboys aren’t completely out of it at 5-6, but they are not far from it. The Cowboys are now tied with the Redskins for second place in the NFC East – with the Redskins currently owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Giants are 6-4 and on a two-game losing streak. It’s conceivable they could come back to the field, but it’s not conceivable the Cowboys are capable of putting together the kind of win streak needed to make a move.

After Thursday’s loss, it’s looking more and more like a stumble to the finish for Jerry Jones’ team. Another year without the playoffs, and the “window” Jones referred to in the offseason draws even closer to being shut.

It would be easy to blame the downfall on injuries. The Cowboys lost three more players during Thursday’s action. The fragile Miles Austin went out early with a hip injury. A depleted secondary lost Orlando Scandrick with a possible broken hand. An even-more-depleted linebacker corps saw Bruce Carter leave with a elbow issue.

The offensive line was even more makeshift than ever with Tyron Smith sidelined by an ankle sprain.

Here’s the thing about the injuries: the Cowboys didn’t play much better when they were healthy. It’s hard to use injuries as an excuse, especially when so much that’s wrong with the Cowboys has nothing to do with the players’ health.

“We have to find a way to do some things better,” quarterback Tony Romo said, almost through clenched teeth. “I think some things are there that everyone can see we can do better.”

Romo, ever the company man, declined to say what those things were.

“We need to do some things,” Romo said, pausing and clearly biting his tongue. “…We need to play better.”

Romo was far from perfect himself, which he pointed out. He threw two interceptions, neither of which was a blatant mistake by a receiver.

But Romo also threw for an eye-popping 441 yards and three touchdowns. Dez Bryant, who is emerging as leader of sorts on the field, had his second big game in a row: eight catches, 145 yards, two TDs.

And yet the Cowboys lost.

The Cowboys had the inherent advantage of playing at home on Thanksgiving. A short week, for sure, but an even shorter one for the Redskins who had to travel.

Home field advantage doesn’t exist for the Cowboys this season. They trailed Tampa Bay 7-0, the Beats 10-0, the Giants 23-0 and the Browns 13-0 before getting on the scoreboard.

Against the Redskins, the Cowboys finally scored first – only to get crushed in a 28-point second quarter by the Redskins.

“We have to make sure we start faster in all three phases of our football team,” Garrett said. “But, again, it’s a 60-minute game. We battled, we gave ourselves a chance at the end of the ball game, we didn’t do enough to win the game.”

The Cowboys seem to come into home games unprepared and unmotivated. Garrett insists on sticking to a balanced attack early in games, knowing full well that his running game is practically non-existent with an injured DeMarco Murray and a tattered offensive line.

Every one of the 90,186 patrons in attendance – many of them wearing Robert Griffin III jerseys – knows that the Cowboys’ best option is Romo throwing the ball. And the games have fallen into a pattern of Romo furiously throwing the Cowboys into contention at the end.

The pattern almost worked. The Cowboys fought back to make it a one-possession game with 8:18 to play, but the Redskins easily marched downfield to put the game out of reach with a field goal.

If the Cowboys can’t get fired up to play well early in a nationally televised game against a longtime rival, well, serious questions have to be asked about Garrett’s ability to motivate and prepare this team.

Those questions will be asked the rest of the season, unless this team somehow undergoes a a personality change. Jerry Jones has been emphatic that Garrett’s job is secure, but anything is possible if the questions get loud enough.

It’s just like those storm clouds. You can build a billion-dollar stadium, but you can’t always keep the rain from coming in.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire