ATLANTA -- The Dallas Cowboys have lost nine of their past 13 games. Jason Garrett's raggedy offense managed just one touchdown Sunday night.
And the playoffs became a little bit more of a mirage after the Atlanta Falcons edged the Cowboys 19-13.
For the first time, Jerry Jones has a viable replacement, if he wants to fire Garrett.
His name: Sean Payton.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported earlier Sunday that Payton's multiyear contract extension, which he signed in September 2011, was voided because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't like certain language in it.
As of today, Payton is free to sign a contract with any team once his year-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal ends.
So laugh, if you must. Dismiss the notion, if you choose. Go ahead and persuade yourself that Payton will eventually find his way back to the Saints.
Garrett's job status is officially tenuous no matter what he says or Payton says, and you might as well ignore whatever Jerry says about Garrett's future.
After all, Jerry has said more times than any of us can remember, "That just because I say it doesn't make it so."
He lies when he must, like any owner of a billion-dollar business.
What Jerry and Garrett must understand is the noise surrounding the coach's job status is going to grow louder if the Cowboys continue to lose and fade into obscurity this season.
Garrett would probably tell you pressure is a worthless emotion. He'd tell you he's too focused on stacking a series of good practices together so the club gives itself the best opportunity to win on the road Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles to worry about his job status.
Well, he should.
Garrett is 16-16 as the Cowboys head coach, and the club is moving backward.
I've always appreciated Garrett's team-building process, and I've believed Garrett provides the best opportunity to win based on Jerry's dysfunctional organizational flow chart.
The beauty of sports is that it's fluid. What's true today might not be true tomorrow. What's true this month might not be true next month, and what's true this year might not be true next year.
The 48-year-old Payton has won a Super Bowl and he has worked under Bill Parcells, so he has pedigree. He'd maximize Tony Romo's ability. More important, he gets Jerry just like Garrett gets Jerry.
There's no doubt that with Payton as the Cowboys' coach, he'd be running the draft and serving as the football guy most fans so desperately want Jerry to hire.
Jerry is loyal to Garrett and respects him immensely. But at 70, Jerry is more loyal to winning and his legacy than he is to Garrett.
While he'd look long and hard for reasons to retain Garrett, the coach must make the decision difficult for him by winning ballgames. Already, time is running out.
The Cowboys need nine wins to have a chance at the playoffs and 10 to probably make the tournament. Do the math: They need to go 6-2 or 7-1 in the second half of the season.
Has anyone seen any tangible evidence that could happen?
If the Cowboys miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons -- Garrett has been here in some capacity for each of those seasons -- then perhaps Jerry will determine he's part of the problem, not the solution.
This week the Cowboys didn't commit a turnover, grabbed an early lead and still failed to beat the NFL's only undefeated team.
While Atlanta had a 100-yard rusher, two 100-yard receivers and a 300-yard passer, Garrett's offense managed just a 300-yard passer as Romo played one of his better games this season.
It just wasn't good enough.
After a six-play, 78-yard drive pulled them to within 16-13 with 5:21 left in the fourth quarter, all the Cowboys needed was a defensive stop from a unit that had played well much of the night.
Instead, Romo got the ball again with 17 seconds left and no timeouts.
After the game, Garrett talked about the positives his team could build upon and the outstanding team the Cowboys played.
Blah, blah, blah.
The rhetoric never changes, an indication he does a great job of sticking to his talking points. His message rings hollow.
Jerry and Garrett can hang only so many banners for moral victories.
If the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, who will be surprised if Jerry fires Garrett and persuades Payton to make America's Team relevant again?