Although only the fourth game on the Cowboys' 2012 schedule, a case could be made that this was about as important as any fourth game could get.
Earn a win over a playoff contender at home and you go into the bye week on a high while also establishing yourself as a team to be reckoned with, especially at Cowboys Stadium. Lose and the ghosts of mediocrity past come haunting yet again.
In front of 90,080 fans, a large portion of which were rooting for the visiting Bears, Dallas was unable to take care of business on their home turf, falling to Chicago, 34-18.
The undoing of the Cowboys once again rested largely on the mistakes of the offense, the Bears returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Dallas gained more yardage than Chicago (430 to 360), had more first downs (26 to 18) and had only two penalties for 10 yards, but even the greatest teams can't recover from five total turnovers.
All of those giveways came courtesy of Tony Romo interceptions. The quarterback went for 307 yards and one touchdown off 31 of 43 passing, but there was no overcoming the ill-advised throws into opponent hands. Tight end Jason Witten had a nice bounce-back game after his early-season struggles, finishing with 13 catches for 112 yards and one score, with Dez Bryant adding eight catches for 105 yards. There wasn't much else to cheer about.
Unlike previous games, though, when the offense faltered but the defense held firm, this time it was an all-round ugly effort. Dallas kept Chicago in check during the first half, but simply had no answer for Brandon Marshall. In the end, the receiver went for 138 yards on seven catches with one touchdown, Devin Hester also reeling in a 34-yard touchdown reception. Quarterback Jay Cutler's statistics weren't flashy, but were efficient as he went 18 of 24 for 275 yards with the two scoring tosses.
In the days leading up to the game, there had been promises of a defensive struggle and early on, both teams certainly obliged. The first quarter was really nothing more than a back and forth flip-flop of field position as neither offense was able to make much progress. Dallas reached the Chicago 47 on their first possession of the game, but that was really as close as either would come to midfield.
Things really didn't get going, at least as far as points on the board, until late in the second quarter when the visitors started at their own 6-yard line and went 69 yards to the Dallas 25. The big blow came on an 18-yard slant to Marshall, which up to that point, 31 of the Bears' offensive yards had come on two passes to Marshall. The rest of the Chicago offense had totaled just 32 yard.
The drive finally came to an end when Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears combined to stuff running back Michael Bush on third and one. That set up a 43-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to give Chicago a 3-0 lead.
Unfortunately, less than two minutes later, the Bears had upped that advantage to 10-0. On third and nine from his own 21, Romo tried to throw a quick curl to Bryant on the left sideline, but Bryant went deep, giving cornerback Charles Tillman maybe the easiest interception he's had in his career. He reached the end zone untouched, the Cowboys hole now a little deeper.
But, they dug out of it somewhat before the half. Taking over at their 20-yard line with 2:38 left on the clock, Romo moved his team down the field, finally finding his connection with Austin. The receiver hadn't caught a pass all game, but Romo found him for 12, 19 and 10 yards during the drive, the last resulting in a dive into the end zone to narrow the score to 10-7.
Although armed with a little momentum going into the half, the Cowboys simply couldn't carry those good vibes into the third quarter. Chicago came out after the break and quickly struck paydirt, the speedster Devin Hester burning by rookie Morris Claiborne on a 34-yard score and a 17-7 lead.
Again, however, the Dallas offense seemed to have found some life. They began their next possession on their own 20 and easily worked into Chicago territory. But on a second and 12 from the Bears' 18-yard line, Romo tried to rifle one into Kevin Ogletree on a slant, only to see the ball bounce off his target's arms and into the waiting hands of safety Major Wright.
The defense tried to keep Dallas in the game when just four plays into the Chicago possession, DeMarcus Ware came around from behind Cutler to sack the quarterback and strip the ball, Victor Butler falling on it at the Bears' 27.
The Cowboys were back in business … for all of one play.
On the very next snap, Romo tried to escape pressure by shooting out a shovel-pass to Witten, only to see Lance Briggs step in front for the interception. The linebacker then showed some speed, racing 74 yards to the end zone to up the score to 24-7.
Not about to give up, Romo drove his team 58 yards to set Dan Bailey up for a 39-yard field goal, the kicker still perfect on the year, bringing the score to 24-10, which is where it remained when the third quarter came to an end.
But Chicago was on another march as the final frame got underway, and once again, Marshall played a big part in it. The receiver caught a 30-yard pass down the right sideline to set his Bears up on the Dallas 8-yard line. The defense was able to keep them out of the end zone, but Gould connected on a chip-shot 21-yarder to get back the three points, the game at 27-10.
The final nail in the coffin came on the Cowboys' next drive. First, Romo had Bryant wide open down the right sideline for what would have been a huge gain, but the wideout let the ball slip through his arms, incomplete. The Cowboys reached the 50-yard line, but then Romo tried to connect with Austin over the middle only to have cornerback D.J. Moore step in front for the interception.
And with that, despite there being 8:30 left on the clock, the mass exodus of the crowd began.
The troubles continued for the Cowboys, the same culprits continuing to do their damage. Shortly after the turnover, Marshall was left wide open over the middle, no one anywhere close to him, and Cutler found him for an easy 31-yard touchdown.
That was then followed by Romo's fifth interception of the night, the quarterback trying to hit Ogletree streaking down the right sideline, Wright cutting in front to pick off his second pass of the game.
The Cowboys did get one more possession with Kyle Orton taking over behind center and the likes of Phillip Tanner, Cole Beasley and Andre Holmes now in the game. And, they were able to get into the end zone and add the two-point conversion, but it was far too little, too late.
With the loss, the Cowboys fall to 2-2, with the challenge of not falling into mediocrity like in recent years. It won't be easy. They now have two long weeks before perhaps the toughest part of their schedule comes: at Baltimore, at Carolina, home against the Giants, then at Atlanta and at Philadelphia.