December issues still run deep into year

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips talks about respect.

He wants it badly and questions why anybody is so interested in his job status with the Cowboys after winning 30 games in three seasons.

One look at the Cowboys on a cold day at Giants Stadium tells you why Phillips doesn't get the respect that other coaches do around the league.

The New York Giants, a team trying to save its season, beat the Cowboys on Sunday, 31-24. The loss pushed the Cowboys into a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles with four games remaining in the regular season.

Dallas had an opportunity to knock off New York but couldn't because it can't get over the December-January hump.

Yes, that closing regular-season period in which the Cowboys have not yielded a winning mark since 1996, when under Barry Switzer they went 2-1 and won a playoff game.

That was the last time the Cowboys beat anybody in the playoffs.

The late-season issues run deeper than Phillips, and in the past three seasons his teams have gone 3-6 with no playoff wins.

"No I don't think it's a mental block, I think it's something you made up," Phillips said. "You say, 'OK, Tony [Romo] hadn't lost a game in November.' Well, we lost one in November. We'll see what happens with this football team, that's what we've got to do. We can change whatever, and we're going to come out and try to do that."

Phillips mentions how the Arizona Cardinals went 2-2 at the end of the 2008 season and reached the Super Bowl. That's true.

But he doesn't mention how the team that won the Super Bowl last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers, went 3-1 in December.

Jerry Jones has said that in order to extend Phillips' contract, the man would have to just about win the division. But to listen to the Cowboys' owner, you wonder if he's in denial about the Cowboys' issues in December as well.

"I'm disappointed over being tied with Philadelphia. I'm disappointed about that, but I don't even have any thoughts about [December]," he said. "This is such a different deal than when Bill [Parcells] was here and we collapsed in December. It's a different deal than when we've had times before, so I don't think about that."

This loss isn't totally Phillips' fault. His defense failed him badly, not registering a sack until the closing moments of the fourth quarter and allowing 6-foot-4, 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs to outrun the entire defense for a 74-yard score.

The Cowboys' special teams gave up a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown, one kicker couldn't boot a kickoff into the end zone on five tries and another shanked a 42-yarder so badly that the holder took the blame for it. Let's not talk about the Cowboys' punt returners, who had more fair catches (four) than yards (none).

The offense couldn't run. It became one-dimensional with the Giants bringing eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to shut it down. Dallas rushed for a season-low 45 yards, averaging 2 yards per carry.

A Marion Barber fumble led to a touchdown, and Romo missed a wide-open Roy Williams for a potential fourth-quarter touchdown with 4:06 to play.

So many things happened Sunday that hurt the Cowboys. If a team performs well in December, the Barber fumble, Romo's miss and Jacobs' performance don't happen.

Good teams make plays at the end of the year because they want to reach the playoffs. The end of the year is December and January, and the head coach can't see that.

But maybe Phillips is right about this: December is no different than September, right?

Maybe the media is making this out to be a big deal.

"I don't think that, because it's warranted because we hadn't won in December," inside linebacker Bradie James said. "So until we win, that's what you guys have to motivate us to do."

Oh. What about you, Jason Witten?

"This team, we've got to knock it down," he said. "We've got to move forward. We can't allow that to creep up on us. I think Bradie said it best last week about where it is, you can't deny that. But this team can't let that happen. I think we're too talented for that, too good for that, but we've got to step up now and do something about it. We're at a critical point, and we can't let this thing turn."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.