Until further notice, the Dallas Cowboys are who we thought they were.
They are who they have been.
They are what they are: an inconsistent and middling football team that is not ready to take the next step toward success, nor does it know how to do so.
That point was surgically driven home in emphatic fashion by the San Diego Chargers and quarterback Phillip Rivers in a 30-21 victory before 68,601 fans at rundown Qualcomm Stadium.
Rivers completed 35 of 42 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns in rallying the Chargers from a 21-10 deficit with 20 unanswered points on four consecutive possessions.
The game-sealing touchdown came on a 56-yard pass to tight end Antonio Gates, who slipped behind linebacker Sean Lee for the back-breaking score with 6 minutes, 54 second left.
Fittingly for San Diego, it was Lee who returned a Rivers interception 52 yards to the end zone to give the Cowboys an 11-point lead with 1:19 left in the first half.
“That’s one of the plays we can’t have to be a good football team,” Lee said of the Gates touchdown. “It’s terribly frustrating. We want to be this consistent football team week in and week out. Until we win games like this, we are not going to be that. We can’t be considered the type of team we want to be.”
The Cowboys (2-2) are back to the .500 team they have always been. It was the second time this season they failed to get back-to-back wins.
It puts the Cowboys back to 18-18 since the start of the 2011 season and 106-106 since the start of the 2000 season.
The Cowboys are 2-9 in their Game 4 over the past 11 seasons, including six consecutive losses when they’ve gone into their fourth game with a 2-1 record.
Owner Jerry Jones refused to compare the Cowboys’ situation to the .500 malaise of the past, just saying he was “extremely frustrated.”
“Well, I just look at it completely in the context of this year,” Jones said. “This is again different circumstances. Rivers played to his reputation out there today. We couldn’t defense him and they balanced it up real good and we paid the consequences. It was unexpected. They did outplay us without a doubt.”
Jones and the Cowboys point to the end of the first half when the momentum shifted decidedly in the Chargers favor.
Rivers took some steam out of a jubilant Cowboys sideline when he followed the Lee interception return by marching the Chargers 66 yards for a 42-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
It proved to be the beginning of the end for the Cowboys defense. That drive combined with three consecutive possessions to start the second half netted 307 yards on 37 plays as the Chargers scored 20 straight points.
The Cowboys yielded a whopping 506 yards as Rivers dinked and dunked them with passes before gashing them with the big play late.
Rivers’ completion percentage of 83.3 percent was the highest in NFL history for a 400-yard passing game.
“He’s a veteran quarterback. Every defense you play has a weakness regardless of what it is,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He did a very good job exploiting that when we were taking away some of the vertical things down the field. They were efficient moving the football. He made some big throws.”
While the Cowboys’ defense — which is on pace to give up more yards than it did last year when they set a team record — is primarily to blame for the loss, the offense should not be absolved.
Quarterback Tony Romo and the offense had limited possessions in the second half because the Chargers controlled the ball, but they also didn’t make any plays when they had it.
Receiver Dez Bryant had six receptions for 81 yards, including two first-half touchdowns. But he also had a critical drop on third down in the third quarter to end a Cowboys drive in Chargers territory.
Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten also dropped a pass on third down in the fourth quarter that would have put the Cowboys in scoring range.
Rookie receiver Terrance Williams ended the Cowboys comeback hopes with a fumble at the goal line with 2:42 left.
How big a missed opportunity this was might be decided this coming Sunday when Peyton Manning and the undefeated Denver Broncos (4-0) come to AT&T Stadium.
Asked his thoughts on facing Manning after being carved up by Rivers, Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin replied: “That’s not good.”