There are no moral victories in the NFL, no matter what Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said in the past.
And there are certainly none with the playoffs and a chance to make a run at the Super Bowl on the line.
So while the short-handed and injury-riddled Cowboys played valiant and seemingly inspired football in a 24-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, there is no hiding from the disappointing bottom line.
For the third consecutive season, the Cowboys lost a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East title and the playoffs. They lost road games at the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in 2011 and 2012.
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Philadelphia’s Brandon Boykin intercepted a Kyle Orton pass with 1:43 remaining in the game to seal the Eagles’ win before 91,166 fans at AT&T Stadium, putting the Cowboys on the sidelines for the playoffs for a fourth straight year and with an 8-8 record for a third consecutive season.
“It’s extremely disappointing for our fans,” a somber Jones said outside the postgame locker room. This is very disappointing. There’s no feel good in this loss, because there was a lot at stake obviously not the least of which is getting to come right back here next week and play. We’re very disappointed. It is unbelievable, unthinkable really for me to be sitting here three years in a row and this game ended up putting us at .500 and this game eliminating us from going to the playoffs.”
The Eagles (10-6) will host the New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild-card playoffs while the Cowboys go into the off-season again wondering how to get out of the malaise of mediocrity that has engulfed this franchise for more than a decade. The Cowboys have a 136-136 record since the start of the 1997 season.
That record includes a mediocre 29-27 record under coach Jason Garrett.
But one reason Jones has no interest in making a change at head coach as he tries to get his team back in the playoffs in 2014 is because of the way they continue to fight and compete under Garrett.
Few people gave them a chance to win Sunday against the heavily favored Eagles.
Franchise quarterback Tony Romo was out after having season ending back surgery on Friday.
And the Cowboys’ defense, the league’s worst and already the worst in team history, was considered no match for the Eagles’ high-flying attack.
Yet, Garrett’s unit refused to wilt, battling back from a 10-0 second-quarter deficit, a 17-10 halftime deficit and 24-16 midway through the fourth quarter.
The first turning point seemingly came at the 11:53 mark of the fourth when Garrett gambled on fourth-and-1, 40 yards from the end zone.
Orton’s pass to running back DeMarco Murray was batted down by defensive end Connor Barwin. The Eagles took 11 plays to turn a 17-16 lead into 24-16 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Bryce Brown.
But Orton and the Cowboys refused to quit. He tossed a 32-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dez Bryant on fourth-and-9 on the ensuing series.
The 2-point conversion pass to Bryant failed.
But the Cowboys’ maligned defense came up big by forcing its fifth punt of the game, giving the ball back to the offense for a potential game-winning field goal drive with 1:49 left.
Orton, however, threw behind Miles Austin on the opening play and Boykin picked it off to seal the game for the Eagles.
It was the second interception of the game for Orton, who completed 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns.
“I just threw a bad pass,” Orton said. “Miles ran a great route, same play we scored on the play before, just went to Miles this time and just threw it behind him and the guy made a nice catch on the ball.”
Garrett praised Orton for his effort and performance in what was his first start since 2011. He said the nine-year veteran gave the Cowboys a chance, which is all they asked.
Garrett told his players he was proud of them, proud of the way they battled and fought through adversity all season and against the Eagles.
But he knows finishing 8-8 for a third straight year is ultimately not good enough.
“You have to keep banging away. In this league, we haven’t taken the next step. Next season, we have to see how we can break through,” Garrett said. “We’ll learn from this experience and move forward.”