The Dallas Cowboys had a chance to erase the sting of a season in which so much has gone wrong with one, glorious afternoon when everything went right.
It should come as no surprise that Dallas failed to live up to its end of the bargain.
A 22-21 loss to the New York Jets today at Texas Stadium, courtesy of John Hall's 37-yard field goal with 1 minute 35 seconds remaining, in no way indicates how crippling this defeat was to the Cowboys' playoff chances. The knowledge of what was squandered this afternoon made the loss all the more difficult to stomach.
The setup was ideal. Washington, which owned a one-game lead in the NFC East entering the day, lost to Indianapolis. The New York Giants, tied with the Cowboys for second place, lost to St. Louis. The top two teams in the NFC Central, Tampa Bay and Detroit, lost as well.
The Cowboys knew a victory would give them the division lead--based on their series sweep of the Redskins--and leave the team in control of its own postseason chances.
Instead, Dallas remains on the outside looking in at a jumbled race.
"Obviously, this was a loss that really hurt," Cowboys Coach Chan Gailey said. "We had everything sitting just like we wanted it, and we didn't take advantage of it. We didn't seize the situation.
"Too many errors at critical times. That's the bottom line."
Dallas (7-7) failed to hold on to an eight-point second-half lead because its offense buckled under the weight of repeated penalties (eight for 92 yards) and the inability to convert on third down (3 of 12).
The result: Dallas continues to stumble toward the finish line, failing to put together back-to-back victories in 2 1/2 months.
"I don't know what that says," said Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who was just 12 of 28 and threw four straight incompletions in the closing minute. "We had a real opportunity today and we let it go."
A 20-yard touchdown run by Eric Bjornson off a fake field goal attempt and a 27-yard run by wide receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail on the end-around staked Dallas to a 21-13 lead with 11 minutes 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
That's where it all began to unravel, compliments of Jets quarterback Ray Lucas and an efficient attack.
Lucas completed 20 of 34 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. His two-yard scoring pass to tight end Blake Spence allowed the Jets (6-8) to score immediately after the Cowboys had taken an eight-point lead and stopped their momentum. Lucas made no mistakes on the Jets' winning field goal drive.
Aikman couldn't say the same. His interception on a deep pass to Bjornson in the final five minutes of the third quarter was forced into coverage. His interception on a pass into the end zone to Deion Sanders early in the fourth--the Cowboys had the ball on the 25-yard line--took a potential field goal out of play.
Dallas has to win at New Orleans and beat the Giants on the next-to-last day of the regular season to keep its playoff hopes alive.