As a sports writer, you have to plan ahead for both a win and a loss. The headline for a potential win — assuming the Cowboys were to beat the Redskins on national television for a trip to the playoffs — was easy to come up with: "Cowboys victorious in game to define classic NFL rivalry," or "Romo the reliable leads Cowboys to playoffs". At the very worst, "Cowboys ride fourth-quarter surge into legendary comeback."
Instead, the summary reads: "Cowboys show true colors."
After a November and December filled with improbable comebacks and lucky breaks, it was hard to write off the Cowboys, even when they were down by 11 points with only 6:35 to play.
Tony Romo is now officially not a clutch quarterback.
In the second half of the season, Cowboys fans were hoping to be down by double digits in the fourth quarter. That was when the magic happened. That was when Tony Romo and Dez Bryant picked apart defenses like they were petunia petals.
The reality, however, is that no amount of magic can overcome a turnover. Romo gave the game away with a costly fourth-quarter pick. The Cowboys lost 28-18.
Granted, at one point in the game, the Cowboys were without DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Jay Ratliff, Barry Church, Kenyon Coleman, Orlando Scandrick, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Phil Costa. But that's not what America saw from the couch. We saw Tony Romo blow it.
In five seasons, there have been three win-and-in games to claim the conference. The Cowboys have lost all three. Tony Romo is now officially not a clutch quarterback. He loses big games.
It could have been one of the greatest games in Cowboys history. Instead, it was another one to forget. These game changers swayed the tide.
274 yards rushing, but it felt like more
This Cowboys defense had nothing. Anthony Spencer had a sack, Brandon Carr played well and everyone else stunk.
This is the defense everyone was expecting weeks ago, once Sean Lee and Bruce Carter hit the injured reserve list. Somehow, amazingly, a group of finicky-tackling free agents from off the street managed to play respectable football for the past few weeks, but the interior of the defense was weak and ready to be exploited.
It could have been one of the greatest games in Cowboys history. Instead, it was another one to forget.
The Saints did it last week with short passes over the middle to Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. The Redskins did it this week the old-fashioned way, with the college option.
Seeing DeMarcus Ware— now half-man, half-machine — getting faked time and time again by Alfred Morris/Robert Griffin III option was as sad as watching a dog chase after a ball that never got thrown.
But the real pain came from the number of weak tackles from a linebacker core that likely would have lost to RGIII last year at Baylor. When you give up 274 yards rushing, you're not fit for the playoffs.
Still, as ridiculous as it sounds, the defense did not lose the game for the Cowboys. They kept their team in contention. They kept the game close enough to put it on Romo's shoulders.
Romo chokes, nation nods knowingly
If you've only watched Romo in the nationally televised games, let me fill you in on how the rest of this season has been going: After two games in which he wouldn't be suitable to back up Mark Sanchez, Romo has played some of the best ball of his career.
If you've watched Romo all season and want to talk about his 4,900 yards this season, let me fill you in on reality: Tony Romo is not good enough to take his team to the playoffs.
Is there anything positive to say about the Cowboys in this game? At least Rob Ryan didn't get penalized for verbal harassment.
Down only three with enough time left for one final drive, Romo didn't account for the coming pressure pre-snap, panicked at the blitzer in his face and threw the season away with an idle floater.
Maybe Romo doesn't choke if he's not staring down the fifth untouched defensive lineman in 15 minutes, but the blame game is pointless. The Cowboys looked bad all around — the kind of bad that makes all the previous good look like a fluke.
Romo choked. What else is new?
Credit where credit is due
Little went well for the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray showed that he is a man possessed; Jason Witten scored a great touchdown and embarrassed a defender in the same play, and Dwayne Harris solidified his spot as punt returner and third string wide receiver for the upcoming season. Dan Bailey is also very, very good at kicking field goals.
Is there anything else positive to say about the Cowboys in this game? At least Rob Ryan didn't get called for verbally harassing a player on the other team.
Shame where shame is due
Can you blame Miles Austin and Dez Bryant for getting hurt? If not, then shame on an offensive line that reverted back to its previous habits of falling apart at a moment's notice. They put a mistake-prone quarterback in mistake-inducing position. The results were not surprising.
In the end, you can't blame bad players for making bad plays: the buck stops with Jerry Jones. Sure, Jerry didn't think he'd be opening up the Yellow Pages every week to find backup linebackers, but this team's lack of depth did them in.
Sure, he's willing to pay $3 million a year for a backup quarterback, but he has no credible backup safety or a respectable O-line? Why not spend that money on a real line and not have the need for a backup quarterback in the first place?
The Cowboys have now missed the playoffs four times and made it only three times since Romo became the starting quarterback. T.O. may no longer be crying, but Romo is the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. And that's shameful.