IRVING, Texas - For the fourth time in three seasons, the Cowboys will watch a team play in the Super Bowl, knowing they took them to the brink earlier in the regular season.
And for argument's sake, probably should've won the game.
This is becoming a sad trend for the Cowboys, whose 8-8 record and missing the playoffs in the final game of the season is frustrating enough. But knowing Dallas was close enough to beat teams that are playing for the championship is yet another tough pill to swallow.
This year, it's the Broncos, who will square off against Seattle in Sunday's Super Bowl in the Meadowlands.
The Cowboys played one of the more entertaining games the NFL has seen in years back on Oct. 6 against the Broncos, a team that was undefeated and looked unstoppable. But Dallas found a way to go toe-to-toe with Denver, and even led the game 48-41 in the final minutes.
Of course, we know how it ended. With the score tied at 48-48 in the final two minutes, Tony Romo trips over Tyron Smith's legs as he tries to pass to Gavin Escobar over the middle. Romo's pass doesn't have enough steam and is intercepted by a diving Broncos linebacker, Danny Travathan. The turnover sets up Peyton Manning in a prime spot and he properly orchestrates the final minutes, leading to Matt Prater's game-winning kick as time expires.
Romo's interception marred what was arguably the best game he had ever played, becoming the first player in Cowboys' history to surpass 500 yards. His 506 passing yards with five touchdowns was overshadowed by the late pick and the subsequent loss.
But it's just another example of the Cowboys' ability to play with the elite teams in the league. It's also another example that the Cowboys just can't get themselves over the hump.
Last year, the Cowboys seemingly outplayed the Ravens in another early-season battle. A team that couldn't run the football consistently, sliced and diced Baltimore's run defense for 227 yards, the most by any team against the Ravens in franchise history. But it didn't lead to a win, although the Cowboys had a questionable time management sequence in which they lost 26 valuable seconds and settled for a 51-yard field goal attempt by Dan Bailey. With a crosswind that had been tricky for both teams all day, Bailey hooked the kick just a few inches to the left and the Cowboys lost 31-29 to a Ravens team that eventually won the Super Bowl over San Francisco.
Two years ago, the Cowboys had a pair of games against the Super Bowl participants in which victory escaped them in the end. [embedded_ad]
Against the Patriots in the middle of the year, Dallas held Tom Brady in check for nearly the entire game. They had more yards, more time of possession and won the turnover battle, 4-2. Yet, in the final four minutes, with the Cowboys leading 16-13, Brady engineered a late drive that ended with an Aaron Hernandez touchdown catch with just 22 seconds remaining.
New England faced the Giants that season in the Super Bowl and New York needed a 31-14 win over Dallas in the regular-season finale to win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. But just a few weeks earlier, the Cowboys had the Giants on the ropes, not only in this game but for the season.
But the Cowboys couldn't hold onto a 34-22 lead late in the fourth quarter. The Giants scored to trim the lead to five and then Romo and Miles Austin couldn't connect on a deep ball on the ensuing possession that would've put the game away. Austin later said he lost the ball in the lights. The Giants regained possession and marched the field again, scoring another touchdown, and with a two-point conversion, led the Cowboys by three.
Dallas had a shot to tie the game, but Bailey's field goal attempt was blocked by Jason Pierre-Paul, giving the Giants their third straight win over the Cowboys at what is now AT&T Stadium.
So the Cowboys can at least say they've been competitive with the NFL's best teams over the last three years. But they can't say they've been good enough to win.
And considering the Cowboys have missed the playoffs by one game each of those last three years, they can look back to several games in which they had chances to win. At some point, these close losses – regardless how good the opponent is – will start to be more demoralizing than anything else. If it hasn't happened already.