ARLINGTON -- For years, the Dallas Cowboys have tried to debunk the perception that they crater in clutch situations -- either late in the games or in December when it matters the most.
After the shocking events before an NFL season-high crowd of 95,952 at Cowboys Stadium, there is little doubt about their problems in crunch time.
Sunday's fourth-quarter collapse in a 37-34 loss to the New York Giants can only be described as a meltdown in what the team admitted was the season's biggest game.
The game ended when kicker Dan Bailey's 47-yard field goal-attempt was blocked by Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
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This was a methodical meltdown that has the Cowboys (7-6) riding a two-game losing streak in December, tied with the Giants (7-6) for first place in the NFC East and possibly needing help to make the playoffs with three games to go.
"Hats off to the Giants," said a terse owner Jerry Jones in a brief statement before walking way. "They didn't quit. They were able to come back and played well and got the win. We are disappointed and we certainly know we have our work cut out for us."
Leading 34-22 with 5 minutes, 41 seconds left in the game, the Cowboys watched Giants quarterback Eli Manning throw a touchdown pass of 8 yards to tight end Jake Ballard at the 2:21 mark.
Then Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo -- who had seemingly been perfect all night with four touchdowns passes, including two in the fourth quarter to put his team up by 12 -- missed a wide-open Miles Austin on a key third down.
A 35-yard punt by Mat McBriar gave the Giants the ball at their 40.
Manning, who completed 27 of 47 passes for 400 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, moved the Giants right down the field.
He was aided by two penalties on the Cowboys, who had made plays earlier in the quarter to help spark their own rally from a 22-20 deficit. Now, they were in their own version of a meltdown, thanks to an offside flag on linebacker DeMarcus Ware to open the drive and defensive-holding flag on cornerback Frank Walker.
An 18-yard pass from Manning to Ballard gave the Giants a first down at the 1, setting up a touchdown run from Brandon Jacobs. D.J. Ware's run for the 2-point conversion gave the Giants a 37-34 lead with 46 seconds left.
The Cowboys set themselves up to put the game in overtime when Romo hit Austin with passes of 22 and 23 yards, setting up the final try by Bailey, who had made kicks from 49 yards out earlier in the game.
But a week after Cowboys coach Jason Garrett called a timeout and iced Bailey, resulting in a miss at the end of regulation of a 20-19 overtime loss to Cardinals, the Giants called time out to ice Bailey. It nullified the first field goal he made.
The second try was blocked by Pierre-Paul.
Thus, a Cowboys team that could have come into this game with a two-game lead on the Giants before ending a four-game November win streak with a controversial loss to the Cardinals, has now lost again, raising renewed questions about their ability to perform when it matters most.
Romo, who completed 21 of 31passes for 321 yards with the four touchdowns and no interceptions, is 7-12 all time in December.
This was also the fifth time this season that the Cowboys have blown a fourth-quarter lead, joining losses to the New York Jets, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, and Cardinals.
"Anytime you are that in position you feel you need one or two plays," Romo said of the missed big play opportunity to Austin that gave the Giants final life. "This was a very disappointing loss."
The Cowboys had three fourth-quarter penalties to nullify what was a fantastic start to the period, especially for the defense which had a big third-down stop by nose tackle Jay Ratliff and an interception by linebacker Sean Lee to set up Romo touchdown passes of 6 yards to Miles Austin and 50 yards to Dez Bryant.
The Dallas defense gave up 501 yards, including 101 yards rushing to Brandon Jacobs.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.