EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Whatever negative has been said about the Dallas Cowboys and their ability to get it done when it matters most since quarterback Tony Romo took over as quarterback in 2006 was on embarrassing display Sunday night.
The coaches and a number of players have changed, but the end result is the same: The Cowboys are not mentally tough and have typically crumbled on the biggest of stages.
How else do you explain falling behind 21-0 at halftime before succumbing 31-14 to the Giants in the winner-take-all-battle for the NFC East title before 81,077 fans at MetLife Stadium?
Check that, how do you explain not even showing up for the first half when a loss sends you home for the winter and out of the playoffs for the second year in a row?
The Giants (9-7) will host the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC wild-card playoff Sunday.
The Cowboys finished third in the division with an 8-8 record. They dropped to 0-4 under the prime-time glare of Sunday Night Football and 0-4 combined against the second-place Philadelphia Eagles and Giants, who have won five of six and seven of nine in the series.
“I’m very disappointed to have the team we have put together and not be in the playoffs,” owner Jerry Jones said. “I am surprised. I didn’t expect to be standing here with a loss.”
Even Jones admitted that mental toughness is a factor for his Cowboys.
“When you get behind, you can question mental toughness,” Jones said. “You can put that right along with other things you can question when you don’t get the job done.”
Jones said his frustration this year is worse than the 6-10 campaign in 2010 in which the Cowboys opened the season talking Super Bowl only to start 1-7, lose Tony Romo to an injury and fire then-coach Wade Phillips at midseason.
It’s worse to Jones because of what was on the line and the opportunity of reaching the playoffs was there for the taking — not just Sunday, but dating back to the beginning of December when they were alone in first place and riding a four-game winning streak.
That was before their typical late-season fade, losing four of the last five games. Two were among five losses for the Cowboys that were the result of blown fourth-quarter leads. Since 2000, the Cowboys are 2-10 in the season finales.
“I have no real excuse for the past,” said coach Jason Garrett of a Cowboys team that is now 13-19 in the months of December and January since 2006. “We didn’t execute down the stretch this season in all three areas. It’s an absolute disappointment. We have to get better as coaches and players.”
The early meltdown was bewildering at times when you consider that Giants fullbacks Bear Pascoe and Henry Hynoski took turns leaping over cornerback Terence Newman for first downs.
Safety Gerald Sensabaugh and cornerback Alan Ball had chances to give the Cowboys some momentum by recovering fumbles, but both missed in a first half that was dominated by the Giants.
They were outgained 277 yards to 44 at one point before mounting a drive to close it to 277-96 at halftime.
That drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt by rookie kicker Dan Bailey.
The loss isn’t on Bailey or Romo, who played despite a bruised right (throwing) hand.
Romo, who took a painkilling injection in his hand before the game, was under siege all night by the Giants defense. He was sacked six times, had a fumble and an interception
Romo completed 29 of 37 passes for 289 yards, including touchdowns of 34 and 6 yards to Laurent Robinson in the second half to narrow the deficit to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter.
But the Cowboys couldn’t overcome the hole they dug for themselves and they couldn’t stop Giants quarterback Eli Manning and receiver Victor Cruz. Manning passed for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Cruz had six catches for 178 yards, including a 74-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter when he burned Newman.
Cruz ended any real Cowboys comeback hopes with a 44-yard catch over Orlando Scandrick to set up a field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys are heading into the off-season with an uncertain future.
Although proud of the way the Cowboys battled back, Garrett said the team must get better across the board, including the coaching staff. He wouldn’t get into personnel changes, but there is no question a host of Cowboys will not be back next year, considering that the contracts of 20 players ended after the season.
“To say it’s disappointing is an understatement,” tight end Jason Witten said. “You work your butt off six, seven months to get to this situation and to let it slip, it’s hard. We’ve got to play better football. We’ve got to get a lot better. You saw that tonight all across the board. It was a lost opportunity. It’s disappointing to play the way we did.”
Clarence E. Hill Jr.