By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; D01
Bad as the beating was, Tony Romo wasn't going to wince. His right hand was swollen, like it could have been broken. There had to be bruising pretty much from head to toe. The Minnesota Vikings' defensive front spent Sunday afternoon treating him like it was four-against-one in a mixed martial arts bout. "Nothing more than usual," Romo answered when asked how much he was hurting physically in the wake being sacked six times in the Dallas Cowboys' 34-3 playoff smackdown.
It's called being a good teammate, when you're running for your football life throughout a playoff game but in defeat you meet the press and try your damnedest to convince the public that it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that. In truth, Romo pulled the Cowboys up by their bootstraps in the middle of the year, when it looked as if another underachieving season would be inevitable. But that effort was nowhere to be found in Minnesota when he needed it, especially when it came to blocking the Vikings.
The Cowboys, the hot team by virtue of whacking the Eagles back-to-back in regular season and playoff games, desperately needed to score first and get control of this NFC semifinal game . . . but they couldn't. The Vikings battered Romo into a fumble on the Cowboys' first possession, Shaun Suisham missed a couple of field goals, Brett Favre slipped a touchdown pass past a Cowboys defender who plain went to sleep on the play. And once the Vikings had seized control, even at 7-0, they played smack the piñata . . . the piñata named Romo.
The Cowboys couldn't block Ray Edwards, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Jimmy Kennedy. They couldn't block the Vikings' defensive linemen when Dallas left tackle Flozell Adams was on the field or when he was out injured. And as Romo would say later: "The game isn't rocket science. . . . If you can get pressure with the front four . . . "
Minnesota's Pat Williams, who was part of a wrecking crew that also left Marion Barber for roadkill, had a more colorful way of summing up the afternoon. "At the end of the day," he said, "we got the W and they got ate up. We got the high score and they got the low score. They are going back to Dallas and we are still chillin' here."
And the NFL got yet another stinker. Okay, it wasn't as impossibly lopsided as the Saints' thumping of the Cardinals on Saturday, but it did mean that six of the eight playoff games have been dogs. It was another mostly lousy weekend for the NFL. The Cardinals' 51-45 overtime victory last Sunday was the only thriller, the only game that was at all close until the Jets' surprising win over San Diego. You shouldn't have your finger on the clicker during the NFL playoffs, yet many of us did.
The Colts and Saints scored such beatdowns Saturday night, I wound up watching "CSI: Miami" and "Criminal Minds" reruns. The games were too lopsided to bother. Cowboys-Vikings was decent enough through the first few possessions of the third quarter, but it turned into something of a flat-liner. Bud Grant's expression didn't change; it never does. But I think I saw Prince yawn. Yes, Prince. He's a Vikings fan. Grew up here. What, you think his obsession with purple and growing up a Vikings fan are a coincidence?
Anyway, it was so lopsided Favre said: "Probably the most I got fatigued today was celebrating. . . . No one is more surprised than me the way that game unfolded. Sure, I hoped we would win but I didn't think it would be as convincing."
The Vikings had such a good time harassing Romo that Favre didn't need to be great. Okay, his four touchdowns to zero interceptions was damn impressive. And Favre had two touchdown passes worth talking about: the 16-yard toss on which he juked Dallas's Marcus Spears off his feet and found Sidney Rice over the middle, and the first score of the game, a 47-yard laser to Rice who was in a stride-for-stride battle with Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh who, um, didn't know Favre had thrown the ball or that Rice had caught it even though he was right beside the wide receiver.
Sensabaugh's coach, Wade Phillips, was incredulous. Because of the way the Vikings like to rush the passer, scoring first was likely the critical mission for both teams in this game. All that was riding on it for Phillips is likely his job.
"He never saw the ball," Phillips said. "He didn't even know [Rice] caught it. It's the strangest play I've seen in a long time. . . . He told us he didn't know they'd thrown the ball or that the guy caught it. . . . He didn't even tackle him."
One of the reasons even Favre thought the Cowboys were legitimately pegged as "the hot team" in the NFC was because they'd gotten ahead of the Saints, gotten ahead of the Eagles and didn't have to resort to throwing the ball down after down. Let's just say Jason Garrett, the offensive coordinator, doesn't do his best work under those conditions. (Tight end Jason Witten should never, ever be left one-on-one to block Minnesota's Allen, yet he was several times. One led to a sack-strip-fumble of Romo.) Neither does the line, which was overmatched. Neither does Barber, whose days as the fearsome Barbarian appear to be over. Neither does Romo. Remember Terrell Owens's criticism that Romo, when he's in a pinch, locks in a little too much on Witten? Well, maybe there's some truth in that.
The Cowboys, even though they won their division and a playoff game, are in for another obsessive offseason evaluation. Raised expectations in Dallas followed by disappointing playoff losses are going to mean casualties by the time Jerry Jones gets through. You think the expectations weren't high in Big D? Even here in Minneapolis, Vikings Coach Brad Childress said afterward: "The Tasmanian Devils that were coming from Dallas were about to bombard the state of Minnesota and run through us like Sherman through the South. That was the aura that was left after last weekend's games. All of us kind of felt that quite palpably. . . . Then we had about enough of it come Tuesday."
Perhaps that's why Childress, with his team leading 27-3, let Favre throw a rub-it-in touchdown pass with 1 minute 55 seconds to play for the final score. Then again, Phillips did call three timeouts with his team impossibly down. It clearly hurt him afterward to acknowledge, "We weren't able to run the ball very well, or throw it very well, and we turned the ball over."
The Romo fumbles were killers, even the one he recovered because it led to a third and long that stopped a drive. But Romo, with Vikings rushing him from everywhere, was like a man standing in a traffic circle fending off cars. He had no chance. And one or two plays can turn a game, even ones that turn out to be lopsided. The Cardinals found that out the hard way Saturday when, after scoring on the first play from scrimmage, Steve Breaston fumbled away the ball and momentum.
That's what the fumbles and two missed Suisham field goals did to the Cowboys. "When you go into a place like this, points matter," Romo said, "and it catches up to you if you don't get them."