IRVING, TEX., NOV. 22 -- The Washington Redskins keep saying this season is about finding answers, but this afternoon they stumbled onto a few more questions during a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys before 60,355 at Texas Stadium.
Four days after dominating a good New Orleans team, the Redskins (6-5) did a good imitation of a team that's tired and old and seemingly unable to trade blows with a younger opponent.
The Cowboys (5-7) hustled to a 10-0 lead, fell behind 17-10 in the third quarter, then stuffed it down the Redskins' throats in driving 55, 72 and 78 yards for scores.
Second-year quarterback Troy Aikman showed flashes of brilliance in completing 20 of 31 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, and rookie Emmitt Smith rushed 23 times for 132 yards and two scores. The Cowboys also blocked a punt, had a big kickoff return and dominated the Redskins on both sides of the ball -- rushing for 162 yards and allowing 36.
This was the week the Redskins hoped would put them in good shape for December's stretch run. Now they're in a pack with a half-dozen or so teams -- including the Cowboys -- hoping to get one of the three wild-card playoff spots. The road isn't easy with Chicago (9-1), Buffalo (9-1) and Miami (8-2) left on the schedule.
"This is a real disappointment," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We just couldn't get it going. We're going to have to do it the tough way now -- and against teams rated a lot better than us. It's still out there for us. We're going to have to find out about ourselves."
At a time when good teams play their best, the Redskins have lost three of five.
"We were just flat and I don't know why," defensive end Charles Mann said. "I didn't think that would happen after that loss in Philadelphia, and I have no answers. We've just got to stay together. It won't do any good to start pointing fingers."
There are plenty of places to point. The Cowboys entered as the NFL's sixth-worst run defender but held the Redskins to six rushing yards the first half, leaving Mark Rypien in a pass, pass, pass mode.
He completed 26 of 54 for 267 yards and a touchdown. He clearly missed some receivers, but the Cowboys also clearly had the Redskins well-defensed, stopping the running game early and playing a soft pass coverage later.
"Rip was probably like the rest of us," Gibbs said. "He missed some things, but so did the rest of us. It wasn't just one person."
The Hogs cleared out only those six rushing yards the first half, so they will get some of the blame. Earnest Byner, who ran for 116 yards against the Saints, got only 39 on 14 carries today.
"They did a good job taking some things away," Rypien said, "and I had some throws I'd like to have back. I wasn't as sharp as I should have been. We put ourselves in some difficult situations, and they thrive in their nickel coverage. It's frustrating, but you have to understand we played a team that played some darn good football."
The Redskins seemed to be taking control when they scored 10 points during a 1:50 stretch midway through the third quarter. Chip Lohmiller's 25-yard field goal made it 10-10, and soon after linebacker Wilber Marshall intercepted an Aikman pass, Rypien threw a six-yard strike to Ricky Sanders for 17-10.
"We didn't panic," Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson said. "We didn't want to start throwing the football every down and play into their hands. I thought we still had a chance, and I'm extremely proud of this football team right now."
The Cowboys didn't fold when they fell behind. Instead, James Dixon returned the kickoff 47 yards to his 45. Aikman drove the Cowboys 55 yards in six plays to make it 17-17 with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
Smith made two crisp runs, going for 14 yards early in the drive and for nine late. Aikman found tight end Jay Novacek (four catches, 88 yards) alone down the middle for 24, and later Smith scored from the 1.
"That wasn't the game," Marshall said. "We still had it and I think we felt we still had it. It was there for us, but we just missed too many tackles."
The Redskins got to the Cowboys 41, where Rypien overthrew Gary Clark deep down the right sideline. James Washington ended up with an interception -- Rypien's first in 159 passes this season.
But the Redskins weren't in bad shape. The Cowboys were on their 5-yard line against a defense that plays its best in the fourth quarter.
However, the Cowboys drove 67 yards in 12 plays, resulting in Ken Willis's 41-yard field goal and a 20-17 edge with 8:44 left. Aikman faced third and four at his 11, and hit Kelvin Martin for 10 yards. He hit Novacek for 15 on third and 10 and Novacek for 41 on third and four.
On third down at the 18, defensive end Fred Stokes sacked Aikman for a five-yard loss and Willis kicked the field goal.
There was ample time left and the Redskins had their chances, but Rypien and Sanders misconnected on third and two. The Redskins punted, and the Cowboys broke it open.
Aikman hit Robert Awalt for 10 on third and four, then on first down at the Washington 48, Smith scooted through the line, broke a Darrell Green tackle at the 25 and sprinted into the end zone. Cowboys 27, Redskins 17.
"I feel like they just kicked my butt today," Redskins cornerback Martin Mayhew said. "That's all I can say. This is going to be a tough stretch for us. You don't want to lose a division game like this."
The Cowboys took the opening kickoff and drove 49 yards on 12 plays for Willis's 49-yard field goal -- the longest of his career.
Aikman started fast, hitting his first four passes, and Smith gained 14 yards on his first four carries to get the Cowboys to the Redskins 25. Tommie Agee gained one yard on first down and safety Todd Bowles broke up an Aikman pass on second.
Stokes then made a big play, sacking Aikman on third and nine at the 24 and making Willis's field goal try at least difficult.
The Cowboys twice converted on third down on the drive, with Aikman hitting Martin for eight yards and third and one and Dixon picking up 18 on a third-and-two reverse.
The Redskins went nowhere their first three possessions and the second one ended with Issiac Holt edging past upback Greg Manusky and blocking Ralf Mojsiejenko's punt. Linebacker David Howard fell on the ball at the 12, and Aikman needed one play to make it 10-0 when he found Michael Irvin in the back of the end zone.
"Another breakdown," Gibbs said. "That was what was different about this game. It's one of the few times I can remember getting beat across the board -- offense, defense and special teams. We got our heads handed to us." Irvin outleaped Green for the touchdown pass with 57 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Redskins finally got it going with 6:22 left in the half, and they did it after Rypien got hot, hitting seven of 10 passes for 76 yards. Byner scored the touchdown on a five-yard draw with 1:08 remaining, but before that Rypien and the Posse had made the plays.
Rypien hit Clark for gains of 12, 12 and 6. He hit Sanders for 17 and Art Monk for six and Byner for seven.
Byner's run got the Redskins within 10-7, and that's the way the first half ended, although they came close to tying it after Aikman lobbed a pass downfield that Mayhew intercepted.
That gave the Redskins a chance at the Dallas 42 with 21 seconds left. Rypien threw one pass out of bounds and hit Sanders for seven yards with nine seconds left. Lohmiller tried a 52-yard field goal that hit the left upright. He had a career-best 55-yarder vs. the Cowboys in Week 3.