ARLINGTON, Texas – No Tony Romo. No Sean Lee. No hope, some said.
But hope is just what 91,166 fans had when the Cowboys took possession with just under two minutes to play, down by two with one timeout in their pocket. Victory was in sight. The division crown, the playoffs. All was there for the taking.
And then it happened … again.
In last year's season finale, the Cowboys found themselves in this same position at Washington, with the ball late in the game, a postseason berth on the line. Only Tony Romo was intercepted on that final drive, the win instead handed to the Redskins.
This time it was Kyle Orton, but the result was the same – an interception, the Cowboys losing to Philadelphia, 24-22, their season finishing in heartbreaking fashion once more.
"Everybody puts in a lot throughout the season and this is my chance to contribute and I had a chance down two with two minutes to go," Orton said. "I'm expected to make good plays and Miles ran a good route and I expect to make that throw."
The backup quarterback, in for the injured Romo, tried to hit Miles Austin on a slant across the middle, but instead threw it behind his receiver and into the arms of cornerback Brandon Boykin – the game, and the season, over.
"We had a chance to have a two-minute drive at the end of the ballgame and kick the game-winning field goal and that didn't happen," said head coach Jason Garrett. "Again, we all have to live with that, we are all responsible for it."
As is usually the case, turnovers proved the undoing of the Cowboys in this one as a fumble and interception earlier in the game led to 10 points for the Eagles. This in addition to the final pick that sealed the outcome.
Aside from those costly mistakes, though, the Dallas offense played much better than anticipated, as they racked up 417 yards of total offense with Orton throwing for 358 threw the air on 30-of-46 passing with two touchdowns. Tight end Jason Witten was his primary security blanket, finishing with a season-high 12 catches for 135 yards with Dez Bryant adding eight grabs for 99 yards.
Given the turnovers, and the implausible number of injuries the unit had to deal with this year, the defense played above and beyond in this one. The front line in particular provided pressure for much of the game, Jason Hatcher, who was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, finishing with two sacks and a forced fumble.
"The defensive line, we played great tonight," Hatcher said. "All eight, nine guys, we put pressure on him and our cornerbacks covered their tail off. We had a one-on-one all night and they did a great job. It allowed us to get to the quarterback. We just didn't do enough. We didn't get enough turnovers on defense."
Philadelphia's high-powered offense put up 366 total yards, but quarterback Nick Foles passed for only 263. LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, proved difficult with 131 rushing yards.
As the game got underway, the Cowboys showed promise on their first two possessions as they drove into Philly territory each time. But on neither occasion could they actually put points on the board. On their opening series, Murray got out of the gate strong, picking up 13 yards on five carries with another catch for 10 more.
But on first-and-10 at the Eagles 28, linebacker Mychal Kendricks popped the ball loose from Murray, the prize bouncing directly to cornerback Bradley Fletcher.
Then starting at their own 20 on the next possession, the Cowboys worked across midfield to the Philadelphia 40. With the drive stalled, Dallas decided to punt the ball away instead of going for it on fourth-and-2. The net result was 28 yards to the Eagles 12, where the visitors set up shop.
Having already put up three points on its first series, thanks to a 47-yard field goal by Alex Henery, Philadelphia then proceeded to march down the field in 10 plays. With Foles seemingly picking primarily on rookie safety Jeff Heath, the Eagles had four plays of at least 17 yards during the drive, the big blow coming when the quarterback basically threw up a jump ball down the right sideline that Jason Avant brought down at the Dallas 3-yard line. On the next snap, McCoy took a short pass and went in untouched for a 10-0 lead less than a minute into the second quarter.
Just when the game appeared like it might get away from Dallas, the Cowboys climbed closer on a six-play, 66-yard drive that featured highlight plays by a pair of rookies.
On third-and-12 at his own 32-yard line, Orton found Terrance Williams deep down the middle, the receiver hauling in a 39-yard pass to the Philly 29. Three plays later, Orton threw outside to tight end Gavin Escobar, who then sprinted the final 17 yards before cartwheeling into the end zone for his second career touchdown, the score now 10-7.
And after the defense forced the Eagles to punt, Dallas appeared to have the momentum firmly behind them as the offense took possession at its own 25-yard line. But on the first play after the two-minute warning, Orton threw a catchable pass slightly behind Witten, who let the ball slip right through his hands and into those of the linebacker Kendricks.
Given the gift, it didn't take the Eagles long to capitalize. Already on the Dallas 49, Philly saw Foles throw a 35-yard pass to Brent Celek, then come right back to the tight end for a 14-yard score and another 10-point advantage, 17-7.
To their credit, though, the Cowboys were able to stay within striking distance. With just more than one minute left in the half, Orton worked quickly, relying heavily on Witten with four passes for 44 yards, the team eventually settling for a 44-yard field goal by Bailey that sent the Cowboys into the break down only 17-10.
Able to move the ball in the through the first two quarters, the Cowboys offense picked it right back up in the third. With the Eagles going three and out to start the frame, Orton started at his own 34, and helped by a Philadelphia penalty on third-and-7 during the series, led his side to the opponent's 25. And while there the drive did stall, Bailey split the uprights from 43 yards out to narrow the score to 17-13.
Which soon became 17-16. On Philadelphia's next possession, Foles dropped back to pass on third-and-11, only to be sacked from behind by Hatcher. The ball came loose and DeMarcus Ware fell on it, the Cowboys set up at the Eagles 20-yard line. That led to a 36-yarder from Bailey.
And then the defense, that beleaguered, hodge-podge group, did something no one thought possible. Yes, the Eagles marched down the field, reaching the 6-yard line with a first-and-goal, but after two incompletions and a 5-yard toss put them at the 1 – thanks to a great stop by cornerback Orlando Scandrick – Philly head coach Chip Kelly made the decision to go for it on fourth down.
The defense stuffed Foles on an attempted quarterback sneak, the stadium erupting.
"I thought our defense stepped up time and time again," Garrett said. "They made some critical stops in the game again to give us a chance to win the thing. Unfortunately, we didn't get that done."
As the clock ticked over to the fourth quarter, the Cowboys unfortunately felt the same disappointment on the ensuing series. Having crossed midfield to the Eagles 40-yard line, Garrett this time elected to go for it on fourth-and-1. But when Orton tried a little flare out to the right side to Murray, charging linebacker Connor Barwin leaped to bat the ball down, Philadelphia taking over possession. [embedded_ad]
With that, the Eagles started to grind away at the Dallas D. They ran the ball nine times during their 11-play drive. McCoy did most of the damage, but Bryce Brown capping the series off with a 6-yard run around the left end for the score, the Eagles lead back up to 24-16 with 6:09 left in the game.
That left things up to Orton and the offense, and sure enough, they responded. Starting at their own 20, the Cowboys got a 13-yard catch from Bryant, a 34-yarder from Witten and then another 6-yard completion to Dez. After an incompletion, that left Dallas facing a fourth-and-9 at the Philadelphia 32.
They went for it again and this time struck gold. Orton hit Bryant on a slant pass over the middle, the receiver shaking loose his defender and running free to the end zone for the touchdown.
The Cowboys went for the conversion, but Orton's line drive attempt to Bryant was knocked away this time, the score 24-22 with just under four minutes remaining.
Again the Dallas defense did its job, forcing a four-and-out, giving its counterparts on the offense one more shot with 1:49 on the clock and one timeout.
And then in a cruel case of déjà vu, fans felt gut-wrenching disappointment again. On the first play from scrimmage, Orton threw that fateful pass behind Austin. Game over.
With the loss, the Cowboys finished 8-8 for the third straight year, missing out on another opportunity to make the playoffs in the final game of the season.
"You just have to keep banging away," Garrett said. "Unfortunately, in this league, we haven't taken the next step. That's something we have to look at and see how we can break through and take that next step."