BALTIMORE –Dan Bailey literally hadn't missed since training camp – he was perfect in the preseason and perfect through four weeks, 59 minutes and 54 seconds of the regular season.
So, when the Cowboys' best effort just wasn't enough all day, of course the clutch kicker would miss with the game on the line. Every time the visitors earned a little momentum, the Ravens snatched it away, the story of this young season for the Cowboys, who fell to 2-3 when a swirling wind steered Bailey's 51-yard game-winning attempt wide left.
Bailey accepted all responsibility for the miss, and his teammates likewise said the right things about the loss – no excuses for it, but plenty of reasons. Leaving such a lengthy kick would be the first to mind. Rather than get in position to run another play or spike the ball, the Cowboys offense let almost 20 seconds run off the clock before calling the timeout to set up the kick.
A tough way to lose following a rally that included a huge pass interference penalty to get within Bailey's range and a recovered onside kick in the final minute, all in the wake of an 18-play drive that fell short of tying the game, when a two-point conversion pass slipped through Dez Bryant's hands.
"It's about execution in those moments and guys doing what they need to do," quarterback Tony Romo said. "Sometimes you do that and you still can't win. Sometimes it comes down to a kick. If the kick goes in, you did a great job today. If it doesn't go in, sometimes, it's 'we didn't do enough to win.'"
While the Cowboys played well enough to win in Baltimore – something no NFC team has done in four years – they also made the mistakes that allowed the Ravens to continually retain control. For the third time this year, the Cowboys committed 13 penalties, losing for the first time when they hit that magic number. They also lost the turnover battle, Romo throwing an interception to end a drive in field goal range, and allowed a league record-tying 108-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Jones.
Yet the Cowboys can't say they beat themselves. The Ravens were deserving winners.
When a Bailey field goal midway through the fourth quarter cut Baltimore's lead to one, they promptly drove 73 yards to go back ahead by eight. And after the Cowboys went on a slow march to rally – climbing to within two on a fade to Dez Bryant, his second touchdown of the day – Ravens corner Cary Williams still got the better of the crucial two-point conversion.
"I felt like I was blanketed. I thought it was pass interference," Bryant said. "He made a good play, and they didn't call it. … I felt like it still could've went either way. I felt like I probably still could've made a play on the ball as well.
"We had momentum and I thought we were going to get in."
The inability to keep a good thing going foiled the Cowboys all day. They started sharp, for the first time this season scoring on their opening drive, going up 7-3, and appeared poised to go up 14-3 on their next possession. However, an illegal shift penalty on third-and-four from the Baltimore 12 led to settling for a field goal.
The Ravens took advantage of the reprieve, going up 17-10 by halftime.
"Different games we've struggled with penalties," head coach Jason Garrett said. "The officials were certainly involved in today's ball game, and you have to overcome that stuff. That's just part of playing football. … I thought our team did a good job responding. Obviously we've got to clean them up. We don't want any of them."
After a Cowboys field goal drive to cut into the lead on the opening drive of the third quarter, Jones jetted through the Cowboys' kickoff coverage unit untouched. From there, it was an uphill battle all day.
Despite outgaining Baltimore by 165 yards, despite controlling the ball for a full two-thirds of the game and despite rushing for more yards than any team has in Ravens franchise history, the Cowboys still came up short.
"We just have some more work to do," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "It's going to take some more games like this to actually show to ourselves that we can do it and we can hang with the best in this league."
To keep their heads above water on the season, the Cowboys will need to turn the corner quickly. They'll play three of their next four on the road, starting at Carolina in a week, with the lone home matchup against the defending champion Giants.
Sunday's loss to the Ravens is a testament to how close they may be, but also, unfortunately, everything they must fix.