For Cowboys, the one that got away
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
PITTSBURGH -- When the final story of the Cowboys' 2008 season is written -- and you can consider this a rough draft -- the frigid scene at Heinz Field might warrant an extra chapter. With a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead over a Steelers team devoid of any offensive rhythm, the Cowboys suddenly remembered who they were.
I suppose we should give the Steelers credit for their stunning comeback in a 20-13 win over the Cowboys, but let's pass on that for now. The Cowboys were seven minutes, 15 seconds away from declaring themselves a legitimate Super Bowl contender again. Seriously.
Perhaps the most dominating defensive performance of the season coupled with the Atlanta Falcons' loss to the New Orleans Saints opened the door to all sorts of opportunities. Now, the Cowboys will be lucky to even qualify for the playoffs. Who among us thinks Dallas will rally and hand the Giants their second consecutive loss? That's what I thought.
The Cowboys survived four turnovers in the first half, in part, because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played like a store-front mannequin -- only with less mobility. Nick Folk's 44-yard field goal at the end of the first half set off Wade Phillips' wild celebration of a 3-3 score. His blue parka seemed to hinder the fist pumps, but who could blame him for being excited?
The Cowboys carried that momentum into the second half, scoring on their first two possessions. Rookie running back Tashard Choice, who made the first start of his career in place of the injured Marion Barber, accounted for 90 yards on the two drives. Terrell Owens, who didn't have a catch in the first half, snatched a touchdown in the back of the end zone to give the Cowboys a 10-3 lead. The way the Steelers' offense had played, any lead looked insurmountable. When the Cowboys' defense made a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter, more than a few fans decided to escape the 18-degree weather. They obviously weren't familiar with the Cowboys' penchant for holiday collapses.
Clinging to a 13-6 lead, the Cowboys went three-and-out and then watched Sam Paulescu squeeze off a 23-yard punt from his 44-yard line. In a season full of special-teams disasters, this was business as usual. The defense finally gave in, allowing Roethlisberger and wide receiver Nate Washington to make several plays downfield. When the Steelers tied the score on Heath Miller's 6-yard touchdown catch, you could sense that the Cowboys were preparing to fold.
Sure enough, Tony Romo delivered a perfect pass to Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, who returned it 25 yards for the game-winning score. After the game, Romo and tight end Jason Witten both attempted to take the blame -- but Witten was much more convincing. As Witten returned to the sideline immediately after the play, he tapped his chest several times to indicate that the interception was his fault.
It was a 10-yard hook route that Romo and Witten could complete in their sleep. Witten is supposed to run 10 yards, read the defender and turn either inside or outside. But he slipped at the top of the route -- and the ball ended up where he'd intended to be. With apologies to the New York Giants, Witten sounded as if he was making a confession to police as he stood in front of his locker and answered every painful question.
"I told the offense that I was accountable for" the interception, Witten said. "I wanted more than anything to let [my teammates] know it was on me and not Tony. He's got enough going on. He's a hell of a quarterback. He trusted me to make the play, and I didn't do it. I wanted them to know that it wasn't on him."
A few moments earlier, T.O. walked into the main interview room and revealed that he was -- wait for it -- wide open on the play. He said Ike Taylor lined up 12 to 13 yards off of him, so he broke off his route and looked for the ball.
"All I can do is run my routes," T.O. said. "It's [Romo's] job to go out there and assess what the defense is, and he made that decision."
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who had one of the Cowboys' five sacks Sunday, still had a look of disbelief on his face as he waited to get on the bus. But he certainly wasn't ready to make a concession speech.
"We're not out of this," Ratliff said. "And we're not going to finger-point."
Ratliff's correct in saying the Cowboys aren't out of the playoff race -- they would go if the season ended Sunday -- but a win would've made things so much easier. Dallas would've taken a one-game lead on the Falcons. And now the Cowboys are only a half-game ahead of the resurgent Eagles, who stunned the Giants with a 20-14 win in the Meadowlands on Sunday.
The Cowboys close the season with a road game in Philadelphia that could end up deciding the final wild-card spot. The Eagles have the Browns, Redskins and Cowboys left on the schedule. The Cowboys must close with the Giants, Ravens and Eagles. A win Sunday would've put them in great position. But this team can't stand prosperity.
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Williams frustrated with his "role" on offense: Roy Williams thought escaping Detroit and returning to his home state would be a reprieve. But that's not exactly how things have worked out. He finished with two catches for 16 yards Sunday, although he was the intended target on Romo's wild, left-handed throw in the third quarter. Williams, who looked resplendent in a light beige suit and matching fedora, told me that it's becoming tougher to hide his frustration.
"I don't get many chances," he said. "So I have to capitalize on the couple throws that come my way. I had this stuff down down after Week 1 of me joining the team. At first, I was a third-down and red-zone receiver, but now I'm supposed to be full time. I'm a coachable wide receiver. If I don't catch many and we win, I'm happy, but it's still a problem. When I don't catch any and we lose, I'm just pissed."
For the record, Williams didn't have a hint of anger in his voice when he was making those comments. It was almost as if he has resigned himself to not being a part of the offense this season. So how's the trade working out so far? We'll give it an incomplete for now, but it is baffling that the Cowboys haven't made more of an effort to get Williams involved in the offense.
Cowboys make the right Choice: It was a grim Cowboys locker room, but players couldn't help but praise rookie running back Tashard Choice, who rushed 23 times for 88 yards and caught five passes for 78 yards. He slipped on the frozen field a couple of times in the first half, but he changed cleats at halftime and it wasn't a problem the rest of the game.
Asked about his performance, Choice said, "It doesn't mean anything. It means something as far as the coaches understanding what I can do, but all I care about is winning and losing. I could have had a terrible game, but if we would've won the game, I would've had a smile on my face. But losing, it takes it all out of you. All it makes you want to do is go back and work harder and play some more."
Choice earned that chance Sunday.