DeMarco Murray's absence felt already

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A pair of crutches supported the Dallas Cowboys' closer, his season ended by a fractured right ankle suffered in the first half.

Felix Jones -- the seemingly forgotten former starting running back -- stepped up with his second 100-yard performance of the season. But the Cowboys missed DeMarco Murray when it mattered most.

Clinging to a five-point lead with 3:14 remaining, all the Cowboys needed was a first down or two to be on the verge of clinching the NFC East title. An offense that was spectacular for most of this Sunday night thriller couldn't finish the job.

That left it up to a deteriorating Dallas defense, and the ensuing disaster was predictable at that point.

Rob Ryan's unit struggles to stop mediocre quarterbacks like Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and Kevin Kolb. So it certainly wasn't a surprise that Eli Manning and the New York Giants marched 58 yards on six plays to score the game-winning touchdown.

The only way for the Cowboys to feel safe in the final minutes was to play keep-away from Eli & Co. An offense that had run up and down the field all night against a soft Giants defense failed miserably to throw the knockout punch, coming up with its first three-and-out series since the opening possession of the game.

Forget the 444 total yards, 321 courtesy of Tony Romo's arm and 106 from Jones' legs. The only numbers that really mattered when on the scoreboard:

Giants 37, Cowboys 34.

Oh, and in the standings, too: It's all tied up atop the NFC East. Both teams left JerryWorld with 7-6 records after the Giants snapped a four-game losing streak.

"It doesn't matter how much success we have," fullback Tony Fiammetta said. "We've got to really close out games."

That's been a glaring problem all season for the Cowboys, who let their opponents rally late in five of their six losses.

Heck, by these Cowboys' standards, blowing a 12-point lead in the final 5:41 isn't so bad. After all, this is a team that set a franchise record by letting a 14-point lead slip away in a season-opening loss to the New York Jets and allowed the Detroit Lions to pull off the biggest road rally in NFL history, roaring back from a 24-point deficit in the second half.

Murray was pretty much a spectator while the Cowboys blew all those double-digit leads, a rarely used rookie reserve during the first two debacles and lost for the season in this one. That's a shame, because he's a gets-stronger-as-the-game-goes-on kind of back, averaging 6.3 yards per carry in the final frame.

Jones gained a grand total of 4 yards on three carries in the fourth quarter against the Giants.

The Cowboys tried to feed Jones when moving the chains might have sealed the Giants' fate. He squirted up the middle for 5 yards on first down, then got stuffed at the line of scrimmage by Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty when Jones tried to bounce outside instead of following Fiammetta's lead block the next snap.

That put the Cowboys in an obvious passing situation on third-and-5. They weren't going to slam the door the old-fashioned, physical way, but they still had a golden chance to kiss the Giants goodbye.

With the blitz coming, Miles Austin had first-round-bust cornerback Aaron Ross all alone in the slot and got behind him on a vertical route. It's an easy score -- which would have been Romo's fifth passing touchdown of the night -- if Austin catches the ball.

But he didn't. Romo's throw landed a foot or two ahead of Austin, stopping the clock and bringing the punt team back on the field.

"Miles said the ball got lost in the light," said Romo, who threw for 321 yards. "Obviously you don't want those types of things to happen."

Those types of things tend to happen to the Cowboys, who have a disturbing knack for finding ways to lose against quality competition.

Romo & Co. still had a shot at sending this shootout into overtime. He hit Austin on a couple of completions for 45 yards during a 46-second drill to give rookie kicker Dan Bailey a chance to extend the game.

But it shouldn't have come down to a 47-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked by Pierre-Paul. The Cowboys let the Giants get off the ropes before the two-minute warning.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said receiver Laurent Robinson, who had four catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. "I feel like we made a lot of plays out there, just not enough to win the game.

"The game's never over. It's the NFL. It's hard to win in this league. We've got to find ways to finish late in the game."

The only formula that has worked -- feeding the ball to Murray -- won't be an option as the Cowboys fight for their playoff lives the next few weeks.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.