The struggle that has the Dallas Cowboys mired in mediocrity for more than a decade was on full display in the waning moments at Ford Field on Sunday.
Angry. Helpless. Despair.
First it was combustible receiver Dez Bryant. He went off on the sideline, cursing, even pushing, tight end Jason Witten as the Detroit Lions went 80 yards for the game-winning score in the final minute to beat the Cowboys 31-30.
The defense, which gave up a team-record 623 yards, including an astounding 329 yards to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, offered little resistance.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford faked a spike and jumped into the end zone with 12 seconds left against a Cowboys defense that wasn’t set.
Coach Jason Garrett walked off the field with his jaw tight and face as red as the cherry locks on his head.
“We were in great position to win the game and we didn’t get it done. When you put your guts out there collectively for three hours, it’s hard to swallow those kinds of defeats,” Garrett said.
“This was a difficult loss for our team. We need to learn from what just happened and find ways in all three phases to win this kind of game and do what we need to do to win the game. Make the plays necessary. They did. We didn’t. We have to live with that.”
Instead of winning a third consecutive game, including a second straight road game for the first time since 2009, the Cowboys are back to 4-4 on the season.
The Cowboys blew two 10-point leads in the fourth quarter and allowed 24 fourth-quarter points. Yet, they remain in first place in the NFC East.
“Until we win games like this, when we have an opportunity to win, we’re going to be an average football team,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “We’re not going to be in the playoffs. Until we win these games, and don’t make these mistakes, we’re going to be 8-8 and we’re not going to be where we want to be. So we’ve got to make a decision: Are we going to execute at the most critical times and win these games when we have them? I don’t know.”
The Cowboys gave up a franchise record in yards as well as the most receiving yards in team history and second most in league history.
Johnson just missed Rams receiver Flipper Anderson’s record of 336 yards in 1989. They also allowed a franchise-record 488 passing yards to Stafford.
The Cowboys achieved the NFL rarity of losing a game while winning the turnover battle 4-0. The Cowboys had two interceptions and recovered two fumbles. They also committed just two penalties.
Despite being outgained 623-268, the Lions began their game-winning drive behind 30-24 with 1:02 left to play.
The Cowboys had 134 yards of offense through three quarters before quarterback Tony Romo tossed touchdown passes of 60 yards to Terrance Williams and 50 yards to Bryant in the fourth quarter.
Romo passed for 206 yards. Bryant caught three passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns, though he was overshadowed by Johnson in the much-hyped showdown.
But it was the final minutes that will be remembered most.
The Cowboys were on the brink of victory when the weary defense stopped the Lions on fourth down with 1:24 left.
The Cowboys had the ball at the Lions’ 31 and hoped to run out the clock. But two runs lost 4 yards. The Lions were out of timeouts. But instead of kneeling on the ball to run more time off the clock, the Cowboys called another run to get in range for a closer field goal. Tackle Tyron Smith was called for holding, stopping the clock.
Dan Bailey made his third field goal of the day from 44 yards out to make the score 30-24.
The final 1:02 was more than enough time for Stafford and Johnson against the overmatched Cowboys, who were playing rookies Jakar Hamilton and Jeff Heath at safety and rookie B.W. Webb at cornerback because of injuries.
A 17-yard pass to Johnson was followed by a 40-yard toss to Kris Durham, followed by a 22-yard pass to Johnson, putting the ball at the 1 at the :14 mark. Instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock, Stafford fooled the defense by faking the spike and jumping over the top for the game-winning score.
“We couldn’t stop Johnson,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “We couldn’t keep him from making the plays and making the plays in the time frame they needed to make them. It was just a huge win for them.
“They took the victory right out of our hands, and they did it the way you have to do it with big plays. They did it at home, and they did it in a way that will help their team. We’ll have to work to overcome this loss.”