ARLINGTON, Texas – Dez Bryant darted for 224 receiving yards and two touchdowns and the Cowboys rallied from a 14-point deficit to tie the Saints on Sunday with a fourth-down touchdown catch by Miles Austin with 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter before a dramatic comeback attempt fell just short in overtime.
And yet, none of it really mattered.
The Cowboys remain in control of their destiny after the Ravens dismantled the Giants late Sunday afternoon, allowing the winner of next weekend's matchup between the Cowboys and Redskins in Washington to capture the division.
"We've got to move forward," said tight end Jason Witten, who set the single-season record for catches by a tight end with his 103rd reception of the year in overtime. "We have an opportunity to go to the playoffs. Regardless, we've got to go play the Redskins, play them tough and see where it falls."
The fate of the Cowboys' season seemed much bleaker at the time of a fumble that rolled more than 20 yards to the Saints' 2-yard line to set up Garrett Hartley's 20-yard game-winning field goal in overtime.
A loss to the Saints meant the Cowboys needed the Giants to lose one of their final two games for the playoffs to even be a possibility. The Giants game started as the Cowboys game came to a close.
"It's tough right now because we don't know what's going to happen," quarterback Tony Romo said after the loss. "It's tough when we fought all the way back."
Shortly after Romo finished his interview, the Ravens jumped out to an early lead and never looked back to set up a winner-takes-all NFC East matchup next Sunday.
"It's amazing how you play every week and you don't think about what's ahead or anything but your opponent," Romo said. "But that's the only reason you really play in a lot of ways, is to get your team into that position and to get in the playoffs so you can have a chance. When you get in, anything can happen."
Whether it's will, competitiveness, grit or any combination of the three that's allowed Dallas to be in position to win the division, there's no doubting the relentless attitude and desire of this group of Cowboys to keep fighting when behind in games and when placed in perilous circumstances.
Despite the eventual loss and despite losing nearly all of its starting defenders to injury at some point in the year and having backup inside linebackers Ernie Sims and Alex Albright injured during Sunday's game, that same passion to finish continued against the Saints.
The Cowboys, who'd never scored more than 10 points in the first half of a game previously this season, piled up 14 first-half points against the Saints, yet they still went into halftime trailing by three points after allowing 10 in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
Typically, an outburst of second-half scoring would follow quickly out of the break. That didn't happen Sunday, when the Saints increased their halftime lead from 17-14 to 31-17 with 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Bryant, who caught five passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, went without a catch in a disastrous third quarter, when DeMarco Murray fumbled at the Cowboys' 5-yard line and the offense punted twice.
"I just got bent around and it just came out," Murray said. "My body got twisted up and, I don't know, it just came out. It shouldn't have come out."
A reeling defense forced the Saints to punt twice before allowing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas.
The Cowboys hadn't led at half in any of their previous three games, yet they won all three. Those late heroics didn't seem likely Sunday after another touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees to begin the fourth quarter.
That's when the Dallas offense morphed back into the group that's made every game competitive this year.
Dwayne Harris, who'd fumbled on a kickoff return and misplayed a punt earlier in the game hauled in a 16-yard touchdown reception to cut the deficit to seven points. Then the defense held and Miles Austin, who'd dropped multiple passes earlier in the game to draw a chorus of boos, snagged his 19-yard touchdown catch to send the game into overtime.
"This team's got a lot of fight to come back the way we have and continue to do," Witten said. "There's something about this team. You're proud to be a part of it."
That series of events would usually spell victory for the Cowboys. That wasn't the case Sunday, when the offense failed to generate more than one first down after receiving the ball to begin overtime. The Saints drove down the field on the ensuing possession when Morris Claiborne forced a fumble on a pass to Marques Colston at the 24-yard line.
The ball just didn't roll the Cowboys' way.
Tight end Jimmy Graham darted for the football and fell on top of it near the goal line to seal the Cowboys' fate on Sunday, but a Giants loss a few hours later ensured that fumble wouldn't seal the fate of the entire season. "We definitely let this one slip away from us," Murray said. "It is what it is. We've got to continue to fight and we've got another game next week. Hopefully, we'll make a splash and we'll see what happens."