December 24, 2011

Cowboys can't unwrap playoff berth, or Romo, lose to Eagles

The Giants' win earlier in the day gives the Cowboys nothing to play for against the Eagles on Christmas Eve. The NFC East title will be decided next week.

ARLINGTON -- The Dallas Cowboys' season will be decided next Sunday, New Year's Day, in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East title at the New York Giants.

The Cowboys will play it with injured quarterback Tony Romo and without any momentum after a 20-7 loss Saturday to the Philadelphia Eagles in a game that turned out to be as meaningless as a preseason tuneup before a crowd of 84,834, the smallest in the three-year history of Cowboys Stadium.

Romo suffered a bruised right hand in the first quarter and did not return as the Cowboys (8-7) decided to play it safe to gear up for next week's showdown against the Giants (8-7), which has been moved from noon to 7:20 p.m. on KXAS/Ch. 5.

"I'll be fine," Romo said. "I think I just took a hit to the helmet. We're going to be all right, though. I'll be good to go next week."

Romo suffered the injury when he hit his throwing hand on the helmet of Eagles defensive end Jason Babin on the Cowboys' first offensive series of the game.

He was taken the locker room for X-rays, which came back negative. He broke blood vessels in his hand. He returned to the sideline and tried to throw in hopes of coming back in the game but was overruled by coach Jason Garrett and owner Jerry Jones, who came from his box suite to the sideline to discuss the situation.

The Cowboys let backup Stephen McGee continue to run things the rest of the way.

"It looks like his [injury] was more on the back of the hand," Garrett said. "Looked like he could grip it. We decided the best thing to do was to leave Stephen in the game."

A 29-14 victory by the Giants against the New York Jets in the early game, which ended just after Romo was injured, eliminated the Eagles and made the outcome at Cowboys Stadium moot.

At that point, the Cowboys were facing the Giants for the NFC East title on New Year's Day, regardless of the outcome at Cowboys Stadium.

Although the Cowboys' loss ended any hope of them getting to the playoffs as a wild-card team, they felt it was more important to be as healthy as they could for the Giants.

It was a situation the Cowboys had discussed before game as it related to running back Felix Jones, who had missed practice all week with a tight hamstring. He played the first quarter, but was then pulled for precautionary reasons.

Jones said he came to the sideline to make sure Garrett knew the Giants won and they were on the same page regarding Romo not going back in.

Garrett also found himself in the ironic position planning and playing for next week after preaching all season about the importance of focusing on one practice at a time and one game at a time.

"You have to step back and understand what the situation is," Garrett said. "We need to be as healthy as we can be going into next week's game. We're hopeful for Tony's hand and some other guys who are nicked up."

The other guys include linebacker Sean Lee and guard Montrae Holland, who left the game in the second half with a tight hamstring and injured elbow, respectively.

Romo's injured hand is the biggest question for the Cowboys. They are confident he will play against the Giants, but there remains a concern of how effective he can be.

Romo came into Saturday's game playing the best football of his career with 22 passing touchdowns and four interceptions over the past 10 games.

Jones said it would be one of the biggest disappointments of his career if the Cowboys didn't make the playoffs with Romo healthy and playing so well.

That was before Romo was sandwiched by Babin and end Trent Cole on a third-down incompletion with 9:57 left in the first quarter.

Romo finished 0-for-2 passing, marking the first time in his career he didn't complete a pass in a game he started.

But Jones and the Cowboys feel good about Romo for next week because there was no fracture and remain excited about the opportunity before them -- especially considering the 6-10 embarrassment of a year ago.

"We have every reason [to think he'll be OK]," Jones said. "Our people have encouraged us, and he has a history of playing with something that the doctors will let him go on. I feel like we dodged a bullet."

The Cowboys still control their own destiny and are relieved that Romo's injury doesn't appear serious. But there is little chance they feel good about their performance Saturday against the Eagles.

The Eagles beat the Cowboys 34-7 earlier in the season. It was evident in the first series of the game that the Cowboys' defense still hadn't solved quarterback Michael Vick and the Eagles' offense.

The Eagles took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards on eight plays for a touchdown. Vick hit Riley Cooper for 28 yards before connecting with Brent Celek for a 13-yard score.

The Eagles made it 14-0 at halftime with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Vick to Jeremy Maclin. Vick passed for 293 yards and repeatedly gashed the secondary for big plays.

The Cowboys will have to be better next week against the Giants. Quarterback Eli Manning lit them up for more than 400 yards passing two weeks ago at Cowboys Stadium.

"Guys are still making mistakes," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "They are not being where they are supposed to be and not playing like a [expletive] football team."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


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