Rally makes this loss extra painful

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Interim coach/ex-quarterback Jason Garrett was a few minutes and a few plays away from being crowned the unquestioned king of Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving comebacks.

This looked like a game that would go down in America's Team lore. It would have been even more impressive than the redhead-led rally to beat the Green Bay Packers in 1994, when third-stringer Garrett outdueled a young Brett Favre. It would have ranked right up there with the stunning comeback led by backup quarterback Clint "The Mad Bomber" Longley to beat the bitter rival Washington Redskins in 1974.

After all, the defending Super Bowl champion New Orelans Saints were spotted 17 points before everything suddenly clicked for the Cowboys. A team whose lack of mental toughness played a major role in getting Wade Phillips fired a few weeks ago fought like hell, seizing control of the game at the end of the first half and claiming the lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Yet, at the end of the game, thousands of Cowboys fans surely spit up their stuffing.

Saints 30, Cowboys 27.

After all the wild twists and turns, it was a loss for the now-3-8 Cowboys. But not just another loss. They'll need the 10 days between games to recover from this punch to the gut that ruined the appetites of a lot of guys in the losers' locker room.

"This game, if you let it, will rip your heart out," said Jon Kitna, who came close to adding his name to the list of backup quarterbacks to lead Thanksgiving comeback wins for the Cowboys. "You get disappointed. You feel like you played well enough to win. You just didn't."

This wasn't the worst moment of this season, which is by far the worst in the proud franchise's history, considering the hopes of being the home team in the Super Bowl that will be played in the Cowboys' $1.2 billion stadium. But it might have been the most painful.

The Cowboys certainly had nothing to be ashamed of Thursday, unlike after pathetic performances in the three games preceding Phillips' firing. They could be proud after playing with passion.

And they could point to plenty of performances worthy of praise in all three phases of the game. Kitna completed 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards. Jason Witten caught all 10 passes thrown his way for 99 yards. The defense kept Drew Brees & Co. out of the end zone for a span of more than 47 minutes. Jesse Holley, who was recently promoted from the practice squad, set up a touchdown by running down Reggie Bush and ripping the ball away on a punt. Kicker David Buehler booted a 53-yard field goal and boomed four kickoffs for touchbacks.

But the Cowboys can't take satisfaction from any of that.

"Ultimately, we're not into moral victories," Garrett said.

It took a stunning turn of events to keep the Cowboys from celebrating a good, old-fashioned win. Then the Cowboys' slim hopes of salvaging a winning season were crushed.

Roy Williams, the much-maligned receiver who had played a magnificent game, appeared on the verge of sealing the stunning win when he caught a third-down slant and broke into the open field with a little more than three minutes remaining. But safety Malcolm Jenkins kept the Saints alive by stripping Williams at the New Orleans 11.

"We had it in our pocket," Williams said, "and I let it go."

The Dallas defense had a chance to be the hero and failed horribly. The Saints marched 89 yards in 63 seconds for the go-ahead score, with Brees hitting Robert Meachem on a 55-yard bomb over Terence Newman to set up a 12-yard touchdown to Lance Moore against Mike Jenkins. Both cornerbacks accepted their share of the blame.

The Cowboys had a chance to send the game into overtime after their two-minute drill stalled. But Buehler's 59-yard field goal attempt hooked wide left, missing by maybe a foot. Buehler, who also felt like the loss should be pinned on him, thought the kick was good until the final split-second.

"It sucks, man," Buehler said.

That line pretty much sums up the Cowboys' season. But this felt different. The Cowboys fought so hard for a fantastic comeback but had to swallow a cruel finish.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.