ARLINGTON -- Considering what has already transpired in a surreal season for the Dallas Cowboys, it is probably fitting that Sunday's 34-31 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints before a crowd of 92,570 at Cowboys Stadium turned on a fluky play.
The Cowboys rallied from a 31-17 deficit with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, a 16-yard pass from quarterback Tony Romo to receiver Dwayne Harris and a 19-yard pass to receiver Miles Austin on fourth down with 15 seconds left.
They watched in agony as the Saints won on a 20-yard field goal from Southlake Carroll graduate Garrett Hartley after receiver Marques Colston caught a pass and fumbled it forward, where tight end Jimmy Graham fell on it at the 2.
The Cowboys (8-7), who saw their three-game winning streak come to an end, thought the pass should have been incomplete, arguing that Colston didn't take two steps and make a football move before the ball was knocked loose by cornerback Morris Claiborne.
The officials upheld the call one week after calling a similar play the opposite way in a Cowboys victory against Pittsburgh, taking a recovered fumble away from them.
"Yeah, I thought it was the identical play," coach Jason Garrett said. "And that's something I was trying to tell the officials. They saw it differently than we did. It certainly was a big play in the game. We somehow have to get beyond this one and get ready for Washington next week."
Said cornerback Brandon Carr: "It was just a wacky play, the same as last week. It's an unfortunate situation. It hurts. We scratch and claw the whole game. For it to come down to a play like that is frustrating. We've got to move on. We've got more games left. It comes down to that."
The Cowboys' season seemed to be over at 3-5 before they won five of their next six. On the way, they had to endure the death of linebacker Jerry Brown. Still, they head into Sunday's season finale at the Washington Redskins with a chance to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. The game has been moved from noon to 7:20 p.m. on NBC (KXAS/5).
The final bit of intrigue was assured when the New York Giants were eliminated from the division title race with a 33-14 loss at the Baltimore Ravens, setting up a winner-take-all battle with the Redskins.
The Cowboys, who lost to Washington 38-31 on Thanksgiving Day, would advance over the Redskins (9-6) because they would have a better record against common opponents. But while Washington would still have a shot at a wild-card spot with a loss, it's win or go home for the Cowboys, just as it was last season when they lost to the Giants in a similar situation on the final day.
"It's disappointing, but I never thought that we wouldn't have to win the game against the Redskins to have life after the regular season," owner Jerry Jones said. "But that's not to say, as you saw, that we didn't do everything we could to win this ballgame."
The game seemed to follow a familiar pattern for the Cowboys, who have won five games this season after rallying from behind in the fourth quarter. And that doesn't include a win over Philadelphia, which they won after entering the final period tied.
The Saints broke a 17-17 tie in the third quarter when they turned a fumble by DeMarco Murray into a 5-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to running back Pierre Thomas. They went up 31-17 early in the fourth quarter when Brees capped a 98-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to David Thomas.
Brees passed for 446 yards and three touchdowns against an injury-riddled Cowboys defense that entered the game without six defensive regulars and then lost linebacker DeMarcus Ware in the third quarter to a shoulder injury."You've just got to put this behind you," Garrett said. "We have to beat Washington next week for any good thing to happen."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.