The Dallas Cowboys began this season with their backs against the wall, given little hope to even match the 8-8 marks of the past three years.
They ended going farther than anyone imagined, while seemingly redefining the image of quarterback Tony Romo along the way.
None of it was any solace when it all came crashing to a halt in Sunday’s 26-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers before 79,704 fans at Lambeau Field in the NFC divisional playoffs.
It was the first meeting between the historic franchises at the iconic stadium since the legendary Ice Bowl in 1967.
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And it remained a cold and hollow place for the Cowboys after the chill of a loss that ended the season and killed Super Bowl dreams.
The Cowboys (13-5) were denied a trip to their first NFC title game since the 1995 Super Bowl title season. Romo has yet to advance past the divisional round in his career.
“Just to lose is disappointing,” Romo said. “When you have an opportunity, you want to take advantage. It doesn’t feel good right now because we feel like we let one slip away, and you had an opportunity with a good ballclub that had a chance to win this thing.
“That is going to eat at you for a while.”
Romo played valiantly in completing 15 of 19 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, despite possible torn ligaments in his hands and repeated hits by the Packers.
But the replay reversal of a call of a pass completion ultimately decided the game and will likely eat at Romo and his teammates forever.
Trailing 26-21 with 4:42 remaining, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-2 at the Green Bay 32.
Romo threw deep to receiver Dez Bryant, who jumped to catch the ball over cornerback Sam Shields. He seemed to secure the catch and took two steps to reach for the end zone. The ball popped up after he had rolled over but he secured it.
The officials ruled it a catch and first-and-goal at the 1.
Green Bay challenged the completion, and the play was reversed, giving the Packers the ball with 4:06 remaining.
According to referee Gene Steratore, Bryant “did not maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game.”
Bryant and the Cowboys have a different view of the play and believe they had the game and their season taken away from them.
“All I know is I had possession, and I had possession coming down,” said Bryant, who explained his position in the locker room for at least 30 minutes after the game. “That’s possession, right? One, two [feet], reach, hand, that’s possession. You see my hand? I tried to stretch forward. I wasn’t off balance. I was trying to stretch for it and get into the end zone.”
The Cowboys led 14-7 at halftime and 21-13 in the third quarter before Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers answered with touchdown passes of 46 yards to receiver Davante Adams and 13 yards to tight end Richard Rogers to take a 26-21 lead.
Rogers overcame a calf strain and limited movement to complete 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
But the Cowboys had seemingly taken his best shot and survived with the Bryant catch a yard from the end zone. They were already dreaming of a trip for the NFC title game in Seattle, where they had already beaten the Seahawks earlier this season, with a chance to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
But that was before the fateful reversal that will have the Packers play at the Seahawks on Sunday for the right to go to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona on Feb. 1.
“I’ve seen Dez do that a lot,” tight end Jason Witten said. “He went up and caught it. There was no question he had control. It’s a tough blow. It hurts to end your season that way. We had a chance to seal it right there and get a win. We are all pretty much in shock right now.”
The shock includes owner Jerry Jones, who entered the season openly admitting the Cowboys had their backs against the wall. He called Sunday’s ending one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
“This would be right there on three or four handful of games,” Jones said of his most devastating losses. “We have a team here that had a chance to compete for the championship. I think we are right now good enough to compete with the eventual Super Bowl winner and win the ballgame. And that hurts.”
Coach Jason Garrett set the tone for the Cowboys all season.
While he believes Bryant made the catch — “It’s a signature play for him and he maintained possession throughout,” Garrett said — he refuses to use it as an excuse.
Garrett said the Cowboys will go home because they didn’t do what was necessary to get the job done over 60 minutes.
Normally reliable kicker Dan Bailey missed a field goal before the half that actually led to a Packers field goal, proving to be a six-point swing. Instead of leading 17-7 at halftime, the Cowboys led 14-10.
Running back DeMarco Murray, who rushed 25 times for 123 yards and a touchdown in the game, had a fumble in the third quarter that led to a Packers field goal, making the score 14-13
“The fight this team has demonstrated from minute one is really special, and I’ve had the great fortune of being around some really, really good football teams,” Garrett said. “The battling back and forth and continuing to fight, scratch, claw somehow, someway to give ourselves a chance to win this ballgame. Our team has done that as well as any team I’ve ever been around.
“Unfortunately we came up short, but when I walk out of this locker room, with head held high and shoulders back because it’s a hell of a football team.”
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760
What the NFL Rulebook says
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3: A forward pass is complete if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).
Item 1: Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.