Broncos 24, Cowboys 21
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson couldn't conceal his bitterness as he headed to a function in a stadium sky suite after his team's 24-21 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos. "I'm just sick," he said to no one in particular. "I don't even feel like eating, and I love to eat."
Many Thanksgiving dinners throughout the Dallas area were probably ruined early Thursday evening when Denver Broncos reserve running back Ron Dayne cut back to a sliver of an opening on the left side of the line, burst through a hole and went 55 yards on the second play of overtime before being dragged down at the Cowboys 6-yard line. On the next play, Jason Elam converted a 24-yard field goal that allowed the Broncos to escape Texas Stadium with their fourth straight victory of the season.
The Broncos, at 9-2 with the second best record in the NFL, put added pressure on the second-place San Diego Chargers (6-4) to prevail against the Washington Redskins Sunday at FedEx Field to have any chance to catch the AFC West leader. The Cowboys, meanwhile, fell to 7-4 after their third game in the last 11 days and can only hope the New York Giants (7-3) suffer a similar fate when they travel to Seattle (8-2) on Sunday. The Cowboys face the Giants at the Meadowlands on Dec. 4.
On a mild, overcast afternoon, the Cowboys seemingly had done everything they could to post their fourth straight victory. Until Dayne's game-breaking run, they held the Broncos' usually high-octane rushing attack to 89 yards through 60 minutes, had forced two critical turnovers -- including quarterback Jake Plummer's first interception in nine games -- and thoroughly dominated time of possession by almost 12 minutes in regulation.
They also had put themselves in perfect position to prevail midway through the fourth quarter, driving to set up a go-ahead 34-yard field goal attempt that would have given them their first lead of the day. But Billy Cundiff, who had re-signed with the team only last Saturday, pulled the kick wide to the left and never got a chance to redeem himself after Denver won the toss in overtime and scored on its third play of the extra session.
"It wasn't a bad hold, it was completely my fault," Cundiff said of the missed 34-yarder. "I take responsibility for it. A lot of guys out there fought hard and I lost it. I thought I hit it well. I looked up and it was left. I've been around long enough to know that if you see me on Sunday, you see me on Sunday. I hope I get another chance."
"I feel very fortunate," Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said afterward.
On the field goal attempt, he added that "we had some penetration in there, and maybe that's the reason he did pull it a little. We feel very lucky."
"Missed it," grumped Dallas Coach Bill Parcells. "What do you want to do? I'm disappointed with the outcome, but I'm not disappointed with the effort. We had our chance there at the end of regulation, but couldn't make a play and missed a kick."
Indeed, with the teams tied at 21, the Cowboys had moved to a third and one at the Broncos 48 on the first play after the two-minute warning.
But a quick-out throw from quarterback Drew Bledsoe was dropped by wide receiver Terry Glenn, and on fourth and one, Parcells opted to punt the ball back to Denver. Afterward, Parcells insisted he never even thought about trying to go for a first down on fourth and one.
"No," he said. "Fourth down at the middle of the field and we don't make it, we lose the game in regulation. No, I wouldn't think about that."
What the Cowboys will think about for the 10 days until they play the Giants is Dayne's final carry on an afternoon that he was in the lineup mostly because backup running back Tatum Bell couldn't play because of a chest injury.
"You know the saying 'break glass in case of emergency,' " said Denver wide receiver Rod Smith. "We broke the glass and he came through. All of a sudden I looked up and saw his back. I was like 'Run, run.' "
Signed as a free agent in the offseason for an NFL minimum salary, Dayne has seen spot action all season. But with Bell out and Shanahan wanting to give starting running back Mike Anderson a blow in an extremely physical football game, Dayne made the most of his opportunity with 98 rushing yards on seven carries.
"We kept trying to stretch them out, stretch them out all day," Dayne said. "Finally, the cutback was there. We know we have to stick with the running game around here. We stuck with it for four quarters and it finally opened up for us."
Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner from Wisconsin, had spent five mostly disappointing years with the Giants before leaving via free agency in the offseason. He said he was simply happy to make the Broncos roster this season and never even thought about complaining about a lack of playing time. The Broncos used him with some effectiveness in the fourth quarter in a victory over San Diego on Sept. 18, but he said his contribution Thursday may well have been the highlight of his six-year professional career.
"Just being able to help the team win, that's all I can ask," he said.
"I don't get into 'I should be doing this or should be doing that.' Coach Shanahan believed in me and gave me the opportunity to play. They believed in me, and I was able to produce. I never lost confidence in myself. I knew I could still play, given the right opportunity."