Cowboys again fail to deliver for Phillips

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys came to coach Wade Phillips' defense last week. The players were upset that their leader was questioned after he categorized them as "a bunch of winners."

Phillips said they were. At the time, he noted that they had won eight games and were tied for first place in the NFC East.

By the end of the afternoon, in front of the third-largest crowd in the brief history of Cowboys Stadium (90,552), Dallas was beaten by the San Diego Chargers, 20-17.

The loss dropped the Cowboys out of a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and has placed their season and Phillips' tenure with the team in doubt.

Phillips was trying to avoid talk of Dallas' December woes -- he's 3-7 in three years and 0-2 this season in the month -- but he's running out of answers as to why the Cowboys won't play for him when it counts.

You can talk about the team going 13-3 in 2007, but the Cowboys were beaten in the NFC Divisional playoffs by the New York Giants that year. It could have given Phillips his first career playoff victory. All it did was raise questions about how overrated that team was.

The next year, the final one at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys lost the finale in the aging stadium to the Baltimore Ravens with some of the greats of the franchise in attendance. Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame wide receiver, looked embarrassed, as if he lost the game that night. In the regular-season finale, with a playoff berth on the line, the Cowboys were knocked out in the first round by the Eagles.

Phillips' team failed him in another big game this season, the first one at new Cowboys Stadium, with 105,121 in attendance. The Giants drove the length of the field to win at the end, 33-31.

And on this sunny day at Cowboys Stadium, with the roof open, Phillips' team had another chance to back its coach on a big stage. Chargers coach Norv Turner was a finalist for the Cowboys job when it became available in 2007. But Jerry Jones picked Phillips over Turner.

It's easy to second-guess the decision now.

But it was the Chargers who beat the Cowboys on Sunday. The Chargers are 11-0 in December with three playoff wins under Turner.

Phillips? Well, he has one division title, one playoff loss and a year in which he didn't make the postseason.

You could blame Phillips. You could blame the players. You could blame Jones, who helped put this team together.

It doesn't matter. The team has to win at some point in the month that matters in the NFL: December.

"Yeah, it sucks. I feel sorry for him," defensive end Igor Olshansky said. "I care about him. He's a great coach, no matter what happens, he will still be a great coach. It's the nature of the beast. It's everybody. It's execution on both sides of the ball, things like that."

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys didn't respond on defense after losing star outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He suffered a sprained neck, and his status is uncertain the rest of the way.

With Ware gone, the Cowboys' defense couldn't find the emotion to stop the Chargers.

Faced with a third-and-12 after a penalty, Philip Rivers found Vincent Jackson for a 39-yard pass with Terence Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh on the coverage. On the next play, Antonio Gates caught a 14-yard reception to break a 10-10 tie.

Dallas got the ball back but had to punt after just three plays. The Chargers went on another drive, starting from their 11, and capped it with Nate Kaeding's 34-yard field goal to push the lead to 20-10 with two minutes to play in the game.

The Cowboys did score, but what was the point? The game was over.

And now they go to New Orleans to play the Saints, who are 13-0.

"It's tough, a tough pill to swallow," inside linebacker Bradie James said. "Anytime you lose, you're disappointed. This is the time where it's dash for the championship right now."

Get your gumbo ready, it's going to be a show.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.