SAN DIEGO – The Cowboys once again find themselves in an all too familiar spot, falling from 2-1 to 2-2 for the fourth time in the past five years after failing to slow the Chargers' attack Sunday in San Diego.
In a division that features a winless team and two one-win teams, the Cowboys had an opportunity to take a stranglehold of the NFC East as the lone team with a winning record. Instead, they fell to .500 once again, allowing lengthy drives to Philip Rivers and suffering a scoring drought late in a 30-21 loss.
"It's tough," said tight end Jason Witten. "We talked last week about winning one game and losing the next, and that's disappointing. There's still a lot of football left to play. We have a group that believes in themselves. We'll get better and we'll bounce back."
The Cowboys led, 21-10, in the second quarter before the Chargers tallied 20 unanswered points and controlled a second half in which the Cowboys didn't score. The Cowboys' final four possessions, which is all they had in the second half, included two punts and a fumble, while San Diego scored points on three of its final four possessions.
All the momentum from Sean Lee's interception return for a touchdown to take a 21-10 lead with 1:19 remaining in the first half couldn't be built upon.
Rivers, who finished with 401 passing yards and completed 35 of his 42 passes, had the Chargers moving on that drive when Jason Hatcher forced an errant pass that Lee came down with and brought back behind an escort of Cowboys. That would be one of only a few chances the Cowboys' line had to bother Rivers, who was sacked just once.
A 21-10 lead quickly became a 23-21 deficit, as Danny Woodhead got going, scoring his second receiving touchdown of the day in the third quarter against Bruce Carter. The linebackers struggled in coverage, despite Lee putting together a monster game statistically with 15 solo tackles and the pick six.
Tight end Antonio Gates, who burned the Cowboys with 10 catches for 136 yards, beat Lee deep for a 56-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach.
"I went to go get him, and he gave me just a little bit of a nudge to get a little bit of separation and Rivers put the ball right on the money," Lee said. "It's one of those deals where it's one of the best I've ever played against. I haven't seen a tight end be able to wiggle like that full speed and be gone. If I could play it again, I'd probably try to stay higher on the route."
Dallas failed to score in the first quarter, punting the ball three times, and the Cowboys reverted back to that form in the second half, while the Chargers continued to pour on points and eat up time. Tony Romo and the offense had just one possession in the third quarter, running seven plays before punting away, as the Chargers held the ball for 11:37 in the quarter.
"I think every time we lose, we look back and say, 'We could have, we should have,'" Romo said. "Today, we just squandered a few opportunities. With minimal possessions, it's going to come down to a few things you do right or wrong."
Romo finished 27-of-37 with 244 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, while DeMarco Murray averaged five yards per carry. But the offense couldn't sustain the few drives they had, running the ball just 16 times, converting three third downs and running 14 fewer plays than the Chargers, who put up 506 net yards. [embedded_ad]
"We didn't get a lot of possessions in the second half, but that's not an excuse," Murray said. "We've got to capitalize on every opportunity we get.
Rivers was content to dink and dunk down the field, as the Cowboys struggled to stop Woodhead and the short passing game. The vaunted pass rush of past weeks was completely halted by the Chargers' quick attack.
Dez Bryant did his best to answer Woodhead, tying the game with a score of his own on a mesmerizing catch on a 5-yard fade. He also scored the Cowboys' next touchdown to give them a 14-10 lead as he caught a pass on an in route down the middle of the field and went the rest of the way for a 34-yard touchdown.
But the offense couldn't get going after that, stalling late while the defense wore down from San Diego's long drives.
"They stayed on the field and limited our offensive opportunities," said head coach Jason Garrett. "We weren't able to cash in on enough of the opportunities on offense to keep pace with them."
The earlier gaffes in the game also came back to bite them. The Cowboys started a second quarter drive with a huge punt return brought to midfield by Dwayne Harris. When that drive stalled, they elected to try a 56-yard kick by Dan Bailey, which sailed wide left. The Chargers used that field position to pick up three points of their own.
"We had the wind, and we have a lot of confidence in Dan Bailey and felt like we were real close to his range to be able to make that kick," Garrett said. "He got it there, he just missed it left. It's always an aggressive decision there. We felt like it was important to try to take advantage of that opportunity."
The Cowboys still had a shot late despite the second-half woes on both sides of the ball, but a second-and-7 pass to Terrance Williams, who led the Cowboys with seven receptions, ended up in a fumble recovery for the Chargers. The rookie receiver reached the ball out to the goal line, leaving him vulnerable to a hit that would jar the ball loose and seal the Cowboys' fate.
"At that point it was a two-score game," Garrett said. "If we knock it in there, we give ourselves a chance coming back, but they made the play and we didn't."
That seemed to be the case throughout the second half, as the Cowboys fell to .500 and failed to open a sizable lead in the NFC East.