ARLINGTON — Tony Romo was heroic in Week 16, leading the Cowboys back from a late 14-point deficit. But he couldn't play both sides of the ball. The Cowboys lost to New Orleans in a pivotal week 16 matchup, 34-31.
Romo engineered a 14-point comeback in the final 5 minutes of regulation. Dez Bryant had a career day with 224 yards on 9 catches (2 for touchdowns). Jason Witten broke the NFL's season record for receptions by a tight end when he grabbed his 103rd catch of 2012. But this game came down to a an overtime fumble which bounced just the right way for Saints Tight End Jimmy Graham to secure it, setting up the winning field goal.
The Cowboys are now 8-7. Their playoff hopes come down to next week's game in Washington against the streaking Redskins. Because the New York Giants lost their Sunday game with the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas can still win the NFC East title by beating Washington, a team that defeated Philadelphia on Sunday for its sixth consecutive victory.
Because of its significance, the Cowboys-Redskins game next week has been moved to prime time, making it the final game of the NFL's regular season.
This week, the Saints dominated the first 15-plus minutes against the Cowboys, but only managed to open a seven point lead.
The Saints took the game's opening possession downfield with little resistance. Drew Brees completed 4 of 6 passes for 52 yards, driving the Saints 80 yards in 4-and-a-half minutes to lead the game 7-0. Mark Ingram capped off the drive with a nine-yard touchdown run.
New Orleans dominated the time of possession in the opening period, holding on to the ball for more than 12 of 15 minutes. They gained 11 first downs in the first quarter, but on the second play of the second quarter, Southlake Carroll grad and Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 36 yard field goal attempt.
The Saints scored 10 points in the final two minutes of the half to offset a spectacular showing from Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant.
Bryant flashed his explosive play-making ability in the second quarter. With the Cowboys trailing 7 nothing early in the second quarter, Tony Romo threw deep for Bryant, who jumped to catch the ball at its highest point and then easily eluded Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson and eventually walked into the end zone to tie the game at 7.
On the Cowboys' next possession, Romo hit Bryant on a slant route. He broke Robinson's tackle and outraced the Saints defense and again walked into the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
The Saints answered with a 90-yard drive that was extended by an offsides penalty on the Cowboys during fourth and one. Drew Brees hit Marques Colston for an apparent 15 yard gain and first down, but a replay review showed it was an incompletion. But Anthony Spencer was called offside on the play and the Saints were set up with a first down inside the red zone.
Three plays later, Brees found Lance Moore for a six-yard game-tying touchdown pass.
After a Cowboys 3-and-out, the Saint got the ball back with 47 seconds in the half. Brees found Darren Sproles underneath and he weaved his way down field for a 44 yard gain. It led to a 42 yard Garrett Hartley field goal and a Saints 17-14 lead at the midway point.
DeMarco Murray's third-quarter fumble gave the Saints an easy touchdown shot and they capitalized on third down to take a seven point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys took over possession at their own three yard line after a Thomas Morstead punt pinned them deep in their own territory. On first down, Murray plunged through the middle of the line and while pushing forward coughed up the football. Curtis Lofton recovered for the Saints and they took over possession at the Cowboys' five yard line.
On third down, Drew Brees checked down to running back Pierre Thomas. He was wide open and easily scored the go-ahead touchdown for a 24-17 lead.
The Saints engineered another drive as we moved toward the fourth quarter. Brees connected with Marques Colston for a 60-yard reception, and the next play featured a play-action pass to tight end David Thomas. It went for a 3-yard touchdown, and the Saints suddenly had a two-touchdown lead.
Both teams would punt on their next possessions, and Tony Romo's offense got the ball with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter and a 31-17 deficit. But Romo found Dez Bryant for a 41-yard bomb (his third play of at least 40 yards), DeMarco Murray gained 15, and Romo then hit Dwayne Harris with a 16-yard touchdown pass to bring the Cowboys within a touchdown.
The Cowboys' defense forced a punt, and Romo had another major test ahead of him -- 64 yards to gain and 1:29 to do it. He methodically worked the ball down the field and to the 19 yard line, where the Cowboys would face a 4th and 10 with 22 seconds remaining. With the game on the line, Romo threw a perfect pass to Miles Austin, who had run a deep hook route in the right side of the end zone. Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson was fooled, and the Cowboys score sent the game to overtime.
The Cowboys won the toss and got the ball to start the extra frame. But their drive proved fruitless and Brian Moorman punted to the Saints 26 yard line. Drew Brees began the drive with a 26-yard pass to Jimmy Graham, then found him for another first down on a 7-yard gain.
Brees then tried another pass -- this one to wide receiver Marques Colston. Colston caught the ball, but Cowboys cornerback Mo Claiborne forced it free, and it bounced and rolled toward the Dallas end zone. Graham and Cowboys safety Kevin Frampton raced to the ball in a dead heat and Graham ended up securing the ball. The completion was reviewed and upheld, and Saints kicker Garrett Hartley kicked the easy field-goal to win the game.
Romo knows the loss ultimately overshadows his accomplishments.
"There are some simple things that we usually do pretty well. That's what the game comes down to.... it's about winning and losing. You do everything in your power to help your team win, and when you don't, you'll use the experiences to get better. But as far as standing up here and feeling good, it doesn't. It's just a very empty feeling," Romo said.
Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett isn't lingering on the loss -- he's looking ahead.
"What we have to do is somehow, some way, put this one behind us, and come in Wednesday ready to play one ballgame and beat the Washington Redskins up at their place next week."
Bryant's brilliant game will not be forgotten. Neither will Tony Romo's heroism or Jason Witten's record-breaking moment. But this game came down to Jimmy Graham beating Eric Frampton to a loose football -- and that's the indelible memory from today's matchup. The Cowboys are still in the playoff hunt, and next week's game in Washington should be a great one.