The combination that the Cowboys could not solve. - Rob Carr
Tony Romo's late-game magic finally ran out on a Sunday night. Dallas has now lost a win-or-go home game for the division against all three of their NFC East rivals in the last few years.
Perhaps it was inevitable. The Dallas Cowboys have been beaten up all season, and against the Washington Redskins their patched-together defense could not stop Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. And then they saw Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris all suffer injury during the game. It was too much to overcome. The result was a 28-18 Redskins victory.
There will be increased criticism of Tony Romo after this game, with a three interception performance that effectively ended any chance of a win when he was fooled badly on the third one, stopping a drive that could have led to either tying the game or going ahead with a touchdown. And his first interception took away a scoring opportunity in the red zone that may have greatly changed the complexion of the game. But he was under constant duress from a blitz-happy Redskins defensive scheme, and with his receiving corps melting away before his eyes he largely was running out of options by the closing minutes of the game.
There was certainly no lack of fight in the Cowboys. They just could not answer what the Redskins threw at them. DeAngelo Hall had what can only be called a great game defending Bryant and made him pretty much a non-factor in the game.
This is really about a great performance by Washington. Alfred Morris was unstoppable, setting the all-time season rushing record for the Redskins and also setting a rookie record for a single game. He rushed for 200 yards, double what the entire Cowboys team could manage. Add in the 63 yards RGIII managed on his gimpy leg, and the Washington running game was too much. Repeatedly the Redskins left DeMarcus Ware and/or Anthony Spencer unblocked. Griffin's excellent ball handling would freeze them and take them out of the play, leaving plenty of bodies to handle the rest of the defense.
If there is a "what if" to ask about the game, it is how Dallas would have played with Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Barry Church on the field. They have the athleticism to have at least a possibility of slowing down the read option offense. But that was not the case, and Dallas paid the price.
Take nothing away from the Redskins. Although the Cowboys were depleted and playing multiple defenders who were not good enough to make other rosters in the league, the Redskins did manage a remarkable seven game winning streak to come from 3-6 to champions of the NFC East.
And even with a knee brace limiting his mobility, Griffin demonstrated why he is a Pro Bowl quarterback. The read option was devastating throughout that streak and it certainly was against the Cowboys. While many question how long that kind of attack can succeed in the NFL, it is absolutely working now. Add in a running back like Morris behind Mike Shanahan's zone blocking, and this is a team that no one is going to be able to take lightly in the post-season.
Many fans will feel a great deal of disappointment in the way the season ended for Dallas. But this was a very different team than the one that faded at the end of 2011. Even in this game, the Cowboys were in it until very late in the game. They fought all the way, but just had too few weapons left in the end. And it almost looked like a chance for a miracle was theirs when Morris lost the ball running in from the one yard line inside the final two minutes, but replay showed he had broken the plane before he lost the handle, and that was the end for Dallas' season.
This leaves the Cowboys and their fan base looking toward the offseason much earlier than they wanted. But if you look at the way Dallas played late in the season, and how close they were in some of the losses this year, this team does have something to build on. Jason Garrett could not get into the playoffs this year, but he has gotten his desired culture firmly entrenched. He probably is going to have more success to prove he deserves to continue as head coach in 2013. And I for one think he will. Although the 8-8 record may not look like it, this is a team that did improve in many key aspects. If the injury bug does not decimate the team the way it did this year, they could do very well.
That, however, is not much comfort. For now, Dallas fans have a bitter taste that is going to linger for months to come. In the game that became the de facto NFC East Championship, the Washington Redskins were the better team.