The Cowboys have defeated a seemingly unbeatable Peyton Manning team in the past and were hoping history would repeat itself on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
History did repeat itself, but in the last way that Tony Romo and the Cowboys intended it to.
Despite a historic day from Romo, a performance which saw him go 25-36 for a franchise record 506 yards, everyone's focus will be on his costly interception deep in Dallas territory that set a game winning Denver Broncos field goal as time expired.
Just before the two minute warning – and with the game knotted at 48-48 – Romo's pass, intended for TE Gavin Escobar, landed in the hands of LB Danny Trevathan at the Dallas 24. Manning took advantage of the short field, setting up Denver's kicker Matt Prater for a game winning 28 yard field goal, giving the Broncos an insane 51-48. The 99 points accounted for by the two teams tied for the 4th highest scoring output by two teams in NFL history.
The attention of the NFL nation will undoubtedly linger on Romo's deadly interception, but could the situation have been avoided entirely?
For example, Dallas's defense – still reeling after the dreadful San Diego game – allowed Denver to score on six consecutive possessions, including five straight touchdowns, after forcing a turnover on their opening drive. In addition, the offense might have lost the game in the 1st half on two separate occasions. After taking a 14-7 lead into the 2nd quarter, the Cowboys drove into the Denver red zone poised to score again, but a 17 yard sack by Denver LB Shaun Phillips, his first of two on the day, forced Dan Bailey to kick a field goal to put them up 17-7, a lead that was quickly trimmed by another Denver touchdown.
On the next Dallas possession, WR Dez Bryant had a first down, but was stripped of the ball by CB Kayvon Webster. Denver scored on the ensuing drive, giving them a lead they wouldn't relinquish until the second half.
While no one expected the defense to completely shut down Peyton Manning's powerful offense, they could have done a lot better. There was rarely, if ever, pressure on Manning, and the one time they did put pressure on the Denver QB, DE George Selvie was whistled for a facemask penalty.
Numerous other careless penalties, which ranged from pass interferences to neutral zone infractions, kept Denver drives and gave the high octane offense the last thing they needed: free yardage. Despite allowing him a touchdown, the Cowboys were able to hold WR Wes Welker to pedestrian numbers (5 receptions, 49 yards), likewise with Demaryius Thomas (5 receptions, 57 yards, 0 TD's).
The problem was, however, Denver's other receivers stepped it up big time. TE Julius Thomas has made huge strides with fellow TE's Jacob Tamme and Joel Dressen hurting this season. The 3rd year vet had 9 receptions, leading all receivers, and scored 2 touchdowns. Eric Decker recovered from his fumble, the aforementioned turnover on the Broncos' first drive to have a soid day (5 receptions, 87 yards, 1 TD). CB Morris Claiborne had an interception that changed the course of the game, but work still needs to be done. Claiborne allowed a 57 yard Decker reception early in the first half that set Denver's first touchdown up. The defense also allowed RB Knowshon Moreno to look like Terrell Davis. Moreno finished the game with 150 total yards (93 rushing, 57 receiving) and one touchdown. As for the honorable Mr. Manning, he finished his day 33-42, 414 yards, with 4 touchdowns. His four touchdowns give him 20 on the season, reaching that plateau faster than any previous QB in NFL history, though he did see his interception-free streak end.
Despite the loss, there are several silver linings to take out of this thriller. The Cowboys do have to feel good about themselves for keeping up with a Denver Broncos team that has a realistic chance at perfection (it sure isn't ending next week, as the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars take a hike up to Mile High). Despite the costly pick, it's nice to see Romo back to throwing the deep ball. After failing to throw for 300 yards in the four games of the season, Romo tallied 506, shattering Don Meredith's 50 year old record of 460. Romo found eight different receivers on the day and had five touchdown passes. While many were to the usual suspects like Bryant (6 receptions, 141 yards, 2 TD's) and TE Jason Witten, who had his best game in a long time (7 receptions, 121 yards, 1 TD), it was a pair of newcomers that stood out.
It had been a rude welcome to the NFL for WR Terrence Williams, Dallas's 2013 3rd round pick out of Baylor. The receiver's wrong route gave Romo his first (and, before Sunday, only) interception of the season on opening night against the Giants, and his fumble at the Chargers' one yard line late in the game killed any hope of a Dallas comeback. Today, though, Williams stepped it up. With Miles Austin missing his second straight game, caught the ball all four times he was targeted, picking up 141 yards, leading all receivers. He also scored his first NFL touchdown, and 82 yard hook up that brought Dallas back in the game in the 3rd quarter, and also scored on a two point conversion that gave Dallas a brief lead.
Likewise, Cole Beasley turned a few heads as well. Beasley joined the Cowboys in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, and played 10 games for the team last season after making the 53 man roster. He had not done much this season before Sunday (He did not play in the Giants game and had just 4 receptions for 23 yards coming in), but Beasley had 4 receptions for 47 yards and also scored his first NFL touchdown on a four yard throw from Romo, Dallas's final score of the game.
If anything, the Cowboys simply drove home the point that they are the class of a weak NFC East. At 2-3, they currently are tied for first with the Philadelphia Eagles (who more or less knocked the New York Giants out of playoff contention with a 36-21 win earlier in the afternoon), but gave Denver a challenge no other team has given them this year. Sure, the winner of the NFC East is basically playing for the right to have their butt whooped by San Francisco, Chicago or Green Bay in the wild card round, but a playoff appearance would be progress for these Cowboys.
The Cowboys, 2-1 at AT&T Stadium after Sunday's loss, will stay put for next week's game, a tilt with their divisional rival, the Washington Redskins. It will be the Cowboys' second appearance on NBC's Sunday Night Football, their first being the aforementioned win over the Giants in Week 1. The Redskins enjoyed their bye week this past Sunday, but felt a little better going into it after picking up their first win two weeks ago, a 24-14 decision over the Oakland Raiders. Last season, the Skins swept the annual season series over the Cowboys for the first time since 2005, including one of Romo's most recent choke games, throwing three interceptions in the de facto NFC East title game that sent the Cowboys home for the winter. No doubt revenge will be on their mind as the Skins descend on Arlington.
Check back later this week for my Cowboys-Redskins preview!