GREEN BAY, Wis. – And in the end, how utterly eerie for the Dallas Cowboys, the irony thicker than the three hours of drama that had a Lambeau Field record crowd of 79,704 standing for every one of those seconds and likely had those watching on TV on those same pins and needles.
For a season born cloaked in what ifs, in the end was buried in an avalanche of what ifs on an intense Sunday afternoon that began 37 degrees warmer than the last time these two storied franchises, the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, met here in an NFL playoff game 47 years ago.
And once again the ending will be frozen in time, just as it was back in 1967, when the Packers won that epic battle in sub-zero temps, 21-17, in the final seconds. This time, at that same damnable 1-yard line, for all intents and purposes:
Packers 26, Cowboys 21.
Only this time the Cowboys did not leave frostbitten. Just frosted.
Frosted at head referee Gene Steratore and the head of officiating Dean Blandino's NFL Big Brothers watching in New York, who were conferred with over the most important call of the game, of the season, for both combatants. Frosted at themselves for opportunities lost. Frosted over having been itsy-bitsy close to earning a NFC title-game trip this coming Sunday to Seattle, where they had already defeated the Seahawks once this season.
Yet there they were, heads draped in towels to hide the agony. Eyes redden by real tears. Grown mean still walking around the locker room 45 minutes after the fact in full or partial game dress, maybe in defiance that this was it, that the season was all over, as if keeping their game pants on would delay this cruel, inevitable ending.
The emotions so raw, all in denial of the closure facing them at The Ranch come Monday with exit physicals and interviews, and for some exiting for the final time, their belongings unceremoniously being packed away in mere garbage bags, a reminder of how fleeting glory can be.
You'd have thought you had walked into a wake.
In a sense, it was, a wake for a 12-4 season, including a NFC East division title and a first-round playoff victory, the best showing a Cowboys team has produced since the 2007 season, quarterback Tony Romo's first full year as a starter at age 27. He's now 34, four months away from turning 35. Time is marching on.
And, yes, this was a season that began bloated with those what ifs we've talked about so much: What if Romo's back holds up? What if Rolando McClain could successfully return from last playing on Thanksgiving of 2012? What if Tyrone Crawford could successfully return from tearing his Achilles the summer of 2013? What if Anthony Spencer could come back from microfrature knee surgery? What if Josh Brent could successfully return from prison? What if Henry Melton could successfully return from reconstructive knee surgery? What if new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could wave his defensive magic on this rag-tag group?
Just what if, what if, what if.
Against all odds, the Cowboys received affirmative answers to nearly every one of those worries they had, and here they were with 4:12 left in the third period, once again defying those odds, leading the heavily favored Packers, 21-13, once again the first time Green Bay had trailed at home since Week 2, their home opener.
The Packers would then score on consecutive possessions, grabbing a 26-21 lead, but hey, no problem. There still was 9:10 to play. And these were the Cowboys, those never-say-die Cowboys of 2014. And then those what ifs began flooding in again:
What if Dan Bailey's 50-yard field goal attempt had not been deflected the end of the first half?
What if DeMarco Murray, who finished with an impressive 123 rushing yards, had not lost that fumble early in the third quarter when all that was between him and a potential Lambeau Leap of his own was the goalpost?
What if the replay review with 22 seconds left in the first half had overturned what seemed to be an obvious incompleted pass to Randall Cobb at the Cowboys 48, wiping out the 12-yard gain that gave the Packers impetus for their half-ending field goal?
What if James Hanna had recovered the kickoff fumbled by the Packers after the Cowboys had taken that 21-13 third-quarter lead?
And then it happened, the biggest what if, bigger than the state of Texas. WHAT IF Dez Bryant's ruled 31-yard reception at the Packers 1 with 4:06 remaining in the game that was challenged by Packers coach Mike McCarthy had not been overturned through the now considered miracle of replay?
A play that will be talked about for another 47 years.
Was it a catch? Was it not a catch? And remember to reverse the call made on the field the replay officials and Steratore had to have "indisputable evidence." In other words comparable to our legal system's "guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Seriously, this play may be disputed forever, Dez Bryant, the spectacularly talented player that he is, defying common sense and the letter of the rule, not only going up over Packers corner Sam Shields to make a circus catch inside the Packers 5, not only landing with both feet inbounds at around the 3 while getting hit and stumbling, but having the wherewithal to right himself, spin, reposition the ball in his left hand and reach for the goal line.
He came up a half-yard short, the ball popping out of his hand when hitting the ground, popping up and back into his grasp as he rolled into the end zone.
But when judged on replay, anally judged on replay I must say, using the letter of the law, the NFL ruled an incomplete pass, contending that, as Steratore told the game's pool reporter: He must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game. We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete.
This will stick in my head as long as Mother Nature allows: never had an act common to the game.
Of course not. Dez Bryant's act was uncommon to the game, maybe the only receiver on this earth capable of doing what he was doing, acting like he wanted to score a touchdown. What's not a football act about that?
He did not commonly fall to the ground as most receivers would. His skill and will vaulted him toward the goal line, not Shields' contact. Not failing to possess the ball. Just a sense of knowing where he was, what was on the line and how he could possibly put the Cowboys in the lead.
This may have been one of the most complicated calls the NFL has faced in years – will face in years. And those administrating the review challenge took the easy way out: They were incapable of using human judgment as to what was common. They likely had never seen the likes of Dez's act.
So knowing a receiver must maintain possession of the ball all the way to the ground if not taking a step or two – which he did, by the way – to complete the catch they ruled … incomplete.
Packers ball at the Cowboys 33, 4:06 remaining, which they also goofed up, since the ball was ruled down with 4:36 left to play and forgot to reset the clock since the incompletion should have stopped time. They neglected 30 seconds.
Like, what if the Cowboys had held the Packers to a field goal and had one last possession to potentially tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion? Thirty-seconds would have been priceless.
Wonder if an apology for that is forthcoming.
Doesn't matter, as Romo basically said, what's done is done.
"They called it incomplete so obviously we didn't score there," Romo would say, resigning to the fact the season was over. "The calls don't go your way sometimes and that is part of the game."
An incredibly cruel part of the game when at first it does and then it doesn't.
I mean, just when you think you're in, you're out.
And that extends this never-ending trail of what ifs, some good, some bad, and definitely none bigger than this one in the end.