Four years of pent-up frustration.
The endless narrative of not playing their best when it matters most.
Their well-chronicled failures in December.
And more recently, the notion that they don’t play well at home.
All were among the fury of angst the Dallas Cowboys unleashed before 91,899 loud and delirious fans at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.
The Indianapolis Colts never knew what hit them, as the Cowboys jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 42-7 victory, clinching the NFC East title and their first playoff berth since 2009.
They did it in dominating fashion, snapping a three-game losing streak at home before a long-suffering fan base that didn’t want the party to end.
As the clock hit zero, coach Jason Garrett received a Gatorade bath and wide receiver Dez Bryant ran to the end zone to celebrate with fans. Quarterback Tony Romo got on the public address system at midfield to thank the fans.
Long after everyone left, the giant video board still showed “2014 NFC East Division Champions.”
“Obviously, it’s a very emotional locker room,” said Garrett, who finally has the Cowboys in the playoffs after 8-8 finishes each of the past three years. “In so many ways, this is such a long journey and to get to a point to achieve your first goal of winning the division title, a lot goes in that. The way you play in securing that matters and we played really well. I know it was pretty good game for us.”
It was easily the best performance of the Garrett era and arguably the Cowboys’ best big-game performance in years.
The Colts weren’t at their best, dropping a number of passes and committing eight penalties to go along with two interceptions from superstar quarterback Andrew Luck, who had a career-worst 41.7 quarterback rating.
Indianapolis, with its fewest points of the season, avoided its first shutout since 1993 (336 games) with a touchdown with 5:24 left in the game.
But this wasn’t about the Colts (10-5), who had already clinched the AFC South title.
It was about the Cowboys (11-4), who ended a four-year streak of staying home for the postseason and finally broke through after failing in winner-take-all battles for the division title and playoffs each of the past three seasons.
The Cowboys just weren’t going to be denied on this day as they gave their fans an early Christmas present with a division title during a season they entered with admittedly low expectations.
“I’m ecstatic, really,” said owner Jerry Jones, who acknowledges he would have made different decisions in the off-season if he thought the Cowboys were going to be this good. “We went 8-8 three times. So then we just peeled off and here we are. That’s a good feeling. I’m just so proud of these guys to be able to feel good, maybe get a little sanity now that we know we’re in the playoffs.
“This team works as hard as any team that I’ve ever been associated with in football or in anything else. They’ve gotten what they deserve. Now the fans have finally gotten what they deserve, and that is a shot at the big prize.”
How badly did the Cowboys want it?
Running back DeMarco Murray played in the game six days after having surgery to repair a fractured bone in his left hand. He finished with 22 carries for 58 yards.
The NFL’s leading rushing embodied the team’s desire.
“This day with DeMarco Murray is going to be one that’s I’ll never forget,” Garrett said. “The mindset and mentality that he had. It was with a look that was so determined that it’s impact on our team was so strong. It was not easy to do what he did. It was pretty darn special.”
But it was Romo, who has been the face of the team’s December swoons, who led the way by continuing what has already been an MVP-caliber season with a near-flawless performance.
Romo completed 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns to four receivers. His completion rate of 90 percent was a team single-game record. He passed Troy Aikman as the Cowboys’ all-time leading passer. His career passing yardage is 32,971, moving him past Aikman’s mark of 32,942.
His quarterback rating was a near-perfect 151.7 as he led the Cowboys to their third win in December. Romo has tossed 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions in those contests.
“I think we are all judged off wins and losses,” Romo said. “In that regard, this would be near the top [for me]. Specifically, I’m a better player. I’m better now than I’ve ever been for a multitude of reasons. We have gotten better. It’s been a good year. It’s been really good.”
The Cowboys, who have legitimate hopes of making a Super Bowl run, are peaking when it matters most.
This was the third consecutive game the Cowboys opened fast. They led Chicago 35-7 on Dec. 4 before winning 41-28. They jumped out to a 21-0 lead against Philadelphia before closing them out 38-27.
The total domination against the Colts, however, was the coup de grace.
The Cowboys’ maligned defense was equally impressive in shutting down a Colts team that came into the game ranked first in the league in passing (310.9 per yards per game), scoring (30.3 points per game) and third in total offense (421.4 yards).
The Cowboys held the Colts to 1 yard rushing, a team record for fewest rushing yards in a game and the ninth fewest allowed in NFL history. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick had a sack and forced fumble. Safety J.J. Wilcox and linebacker Anthony Hitchens had interceptions.
“They did an outstanding job. That’s a great offensive football team,” Garrett said. “They drive the ball, you get a three-and-out. You drive the ball, you get a three-and-out. That’s a great rhythm, a great dynamic, to be in. Our guys were just seizing the moment.”
This was a total mismatch from the start as the Cowboys led 21-0 with 14:11 left in the second quarter and led 231-13 in total yards, 150-12 in passing yards, 81-1 in rushing yards and 17-0 in first downs.
The Cowboys finish the season at the Washington Redskins next week with an outside chance of securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Winning the division and getting in the postseason is all the Cowboys care about right now. But as happy as they were they want it clear that this is only the beginning.
“They were excited. It was great. I was excited,” Romo said of the postgame celebration. “The joy everyone had was special. It was a great moment that I think a lot of guys will remember, but you also want them to understand we have bigger aspirations, there are bigger things ahead of them.”
Jones is a believer. He says the Cowboys can compete with any team in the playoffs and could make a run to the Super Bowl for first time since 1995.
“We do it for the fans; that’s why we do it,” said Bryant before loudly declaring. “We ain’t done. We ain’t nowhere near finished.”
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760