ARLINGTON, Tex. – They were playing this week to decide the meaning of next week, and it’s now clear that it will be winner take all when the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys meet for the NFC East title. The next question for the Redskins is, which outfit should they scout with the playoffs on the line: the Cowboys who can’t solve the riddle of their dazzling but often fatally confused personality, or the terrifying Cowboys who know exactly who they are?
Do you expect the perplexing, dumbfounding Cowboys who suffered yet another upset loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in overtime, 34-31? Or the touchdown-a-minute monsters who almost won a game that seemed unwinnable? Do you plan for the team that can look like a still life? Or the one that can leave you thunderstruck with feats like two touchdowns in the final 3 minutes 35 seconds against the Saints?
Do you expect the strangely complacent team that allowed the Saints to possess the ball for a staggering 41:59 out of more than 64 minutes? Or do you brace for the biting, snap-jawed team that is never, ever out of a game with Tony Romo, who threw for 416 yards and four touchdowns and can make so much happen in such a short period of time? Their late fourth-quarter drives took just 1:10 and 1:14, respectively, the second one ending with Romo’s 19-yard zing to Miles Austin on fourth and 10 with just 15 seconds remaining to force overtime.
“We had a lot of good plays,” Romo said. “But we didn’t get off the field on third down, and didn’t stay on the field enough on third down, and that’s not a good recipe. . . . We didn’t make a play or two that can determine it.”
What a confounding job it will be for the Redskins to game-plan against these Cowboys, who can’t figure out whether they are giants or giant underachievers. There is no way to predict what they will get from the slope-shouldered, ambling Romo, so alternately easy and predatory. Or that stealth bomber Dez Bryant, who is either explosive or totally silent.
Against the Saints, the Cowboys had only 18 plays in the first half and held the ball for all of 8:12 — that’s it. Yet on two of those plays Romo and Bryant combined on, get this, consecutive 58-yard scoring strikes in the second quarter, Bryant creating such distance from the Saints’ cornerbacks that he practically soft-shoed his way into the end zone.
The Cowboys are in so many ways a physically loaded team with potential game breakers everywhere you look. Yet they are also a nicked-up, hurting team with a patchwork defense. One minute, DeMarco Murray runs like a threshing machine — on his first carry of the game lowered his helmet and literally laid out Saints linebacker David Hawthorne. Yet they are capable of forehead-smacking lulls. In the third quarter their drive chart read like this: a field goal, a three-and-out, a Murray fumble and a punt.
“We obviously messed up a few chances that we had,” Austin said.
All season, the Cowboys have struggled to string together long possessions. Coming into Sunday, they had produced only 19 drives of 10 plays or more, the second-fewest in the NFL. What that suggests is that they tend to over-rely on Romo and big strikes, and they lack consistent execution. Despite their playmakers, they have a mysterious inability to grind and wear out the opposition. They can sting, but they don’t punish.
It was that inability to sustain that hurt them against the Saints, and that the Redskins will undoubtedly study closely in the coming week. After their heroics to get to overtime, the Cowboys won the coin toss and should have been in control of their fate. Yet they couldn’t accomplish anything except to get Jason Witten a new record: with two short catches, he broke the NFL’s all-time single-season record for catches by a tight end (103) passing Tony Gonzalez. But the very next play was an incompletion to Bryant on a slant and they punted.
“We felt like we could have done stuff earlier in the game,” Witten said. He added: “We felt like we had some momentum coming into the game and those mistakes early on really just cost you towards the end of the game. I just think these games come down to a handful of plays and we’ve seen it really the entire season but especially this year. When we’ve been able to make those plays, we win these games. When you’re playing those tight situations, you’ve got to come from behind. Sometimes it’s too big of an obstacle.”
The problem with the Cowboys’ habit of squandering is that it leaves them vulnerable to bad breaks when it counts. And a bad break is what they got in overtime, when Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne punched the ball loose from Saints wide receiver Marques Colston only to have it skitter a full 20 yards forward, where the Saints’ Jimmy Graham fell on it on the 2-yard line, setting up Garrett Hartley’s game-winning 20-yard field goal.
“It’s tough. This team fights,” defensive lineman Marcus Spears said. “We just believe it’s not over until it’s over and to actually have the opportunity to win the game and not get it done, it stings a lot, especially with what we’re playing for.”
It was the third game in a row in which Cowboys have had their fate decided on the final play. Yet we, and they, are no closer to understanding what kind of team they are. They remain a cipher at 8-7, a mystery opponent capable of anything.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/
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