Loss to Broncos shows how good Cowboys can be

ARLINGTON, Texas – The Cowboys picked a tragic way to lose to the Broncos, but it was just part of an even bigger, season-long tragedy.

The tragedy, at least for suffering Cowboys fans, is that their team doesn’t play every game the way they did Sunday against the Broncos. If they did, Sunday’s 51-48 thriller would have been their first loss of the season.

It’s the same old roller-coaster ride for the Cowboys, who seem fully intent on posting a third-straight 8-8 record.

The Cowboys nearly outplayed the best team in the NFL. They rose to the occasion and nearly matched Peyton Manning and the Broncos play-for-play.

In fact, you could make a case that quarterback Tony Romo outplayed Manning. Romo threw for 506 yards and five touchdowns to Manning’s 414 yards and four scores. Romo won the edge in quarterback rating: 140.0 to Manning’s 129.6

The Cowboys’ defense was minor player in this drama, but it did come up with a couple of big plays to slow Denver’s momentum.

One was a first-quarter fumble forced by Ernie Sims that allowed Dallas to go up 14-0. The other was an interception late in the third period by cornerback Mo Claiborne – the first time Manning’s been picked all season.

And as much heat as the Dallas defense will take for giving up 51 points and 517 yards, remember this was against the Peyton and the Broncos. They do that to everybody.

The offense was balanced, at least early on when it mattered. It was diverse, with Romo spreading the ball around to all his playmakers. And the Cowboys took several shots deep, after being criticized for being too conservative.

It was everything you wanted in a Cowboys’ performance, effort-wise. So why don’t we see this every week? Or at least most weeks?

“We had a ton of energy, had some big plays we hadn’t had most of the season,” tight end Jason Witten said. “Offensively, this needs to be the standard to which we play to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Those who have ridden the Cowboys’ rollercoaster in recent years aren’t surprised that they rose to a near-impossible challenge.

The real head-scratcher is why they can’t do this more often.

So many weapons, so much potential. And yet they stub their toes in Kansas City and sleepwalk in San Diego.

Eventually, underwhelming performances in winnable games catch up to you. They have for the Cowboys the last two seasons. They’ve gone into their final game needing a win to make the playoffs for two straight years and, well, you know how that worked out.

“If we come out like this each and every week, like we’re playing an undefeated team every week, the sky is the limit for us,” Claiborne said. “But we didn’t make enough plays and it showed.”

They didn’t make enough plays to beat an unstoppable force like the Broncos, but Sunday’s effort would have been good enough to win in Kansas City and San Diego.

It’s fine to produce a moral victory – as owner Jerry Jones termed it – against Denver. Real victories against more teams less formidable than Denver are what get you into the playoffs.

What the Cowboys have to hope is that this loss is a springboard to better things. They could have let the Broncos run over them, especially down 35-20 in the third quarter, but came back to take the lead in the fourth quarter. It was the rare defeat they could gain confidence from.

“I thought we played well in a lot of different areas,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “There’s a lot of things to clean up, but I do think we demonstrated the mental toughness that great teams have and we have to build on that.”

And if they can’t make this carry over to the next game and the next? Well, here comes 8-8 again.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire