ATLANTA – Heading into Sunday's showdown at the Georgia Dome, it was pretty clear what we knew about both teams.
The Cowboys were a squad that typically found a way to keep it close to the end. The Falcons have been a team that simply finds a way to win.
Both teams stayed in character Sunday night as the Falcons did just enough to stay undefeated at 8-0, while the Cowboys once again found a new way to let one slip away.
And it might be more than just the game. The season is starting to slip away from the Cowboys as well, as they drop to 3-5 following a 19-13 loss to the Falcons, who just made a few more plays in the end.
That seems to be a familiar trend for the Cowboys, who missed a field goal in regulation that would've beaten Baltimore three weeks ago. Then it was a six-turnover game against the Giants that was nearly overcome, only to have a touchdown negated in the final seconds due to a finger being out of bounds.
This week in Atlanta, the Cowboys not only kept the Falcons' high-powered offense in check for most of the night, but received a fair share of gifts, including two missed field goals by the usually-reliable veteran Matt Bryant. They also had a fumble by Matt Ryan dangling in the middle of the field after a DeMarcus Ware sack, but couldn't recover.
The Cowboys also had two first-quarter drives inside the red zone, which ended in only six points.
Those were the type of breaks the Cowboys figured they needed to win this game. They got them, but still couldn't capitalize.
"It was a disappointing loss. This was a good football team that we played tonight," head coach Jason Garrett said. "There's a reason they are undefeated halfway through the season. It was a challenging place to play at their place. I thought we did some good things but they did more good things. We didn't do enough to win this game in all three phases of our football team. We have to give them credit and we have to find a way to make enough plays to win a game like this."
While it's hard to put anything on the Cowboys' defense that held the Falcons to just one touchdown, it was a fourth-quarter drive by Matt Ryan's bunch that ultimately doomed the Cowboys.
After the Cowboys marched down the field to score their only touchdown and trim the Falcons' lead to 16-13 with 5:21 to play, they needed a stop to get the ball back.
They got back it back with just 17 seconds to play and down six. The reason for that was a perfectly-executed drive by the Falcons, who converted three third-downs and took advantage of a defensive holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick, who also missed an open-field tackle on a 31-yard play to Falcons tailback Jacquizz Rodgers. Add it all up and the Falcons chewed up more than five minutes of precious game clock, leaving the Cowboys with virtually no chance of a late-game heroics.
Tony Romo couldn't even get a conventional Hail Mary pass attempt off because of heavy Falcons pressure, only dumping it off to Felix Jones for a 39-yard play that ended at the Falcons' 21. Romo actually suffered what appears to be a minor back strain on the final play. He told reporters after the game he "tweaked it a little bit" but will "be alright."
What he wasn't alright with was not getting the opportunity to have a little more time on the clock in the final minutes.
"I think in that situation, you obviously want to get the ball back with a chance," said Romo, who was 25 of 35 for 321 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. "It's tough. They're a good football team. They're tough to beat at home and they proved it when they obviously ran the clock out."
The Falcons weren't consistent throughout the game but did the little things when it mattered most. Romo said that was the biggest difference in the game.
"We left some opportunities out there tonight," Romo said. "When you go up against a good football team like that who does a lot of little things well, that put themselves in good positions, you can't really make the mistakes that will cost you the game. We had some key third down plays that we couldn't convert, we had some drops, we had a short yardage play that we had an opportunity to get; that stuff comes back to haunt you. You need those plays."
The Cowboys simply need a lot of things right now, but nothing more than a win.
At the halfway point in the season, the Cowboys have put themselves in more than a tough spot. They're likely going to need seven, or perhaps six more wins in the last eight games. That would suggest a level of consistency that certainly isn't lacking right now.
Sunday night was yet another example of the Cowboys having enough fight, enough talent and skill, and enough determination to hang with a good football team.
But it was also another example this team is getting too good at coming up short.