Fourth quarter and the Dallas Cowboys were driving, pursuing their destiny, trying to put 19 years of playoff frustrations in their rear-view mirror.
Though they trailed Green Bay 26-21, there was a feeling Sunday that the Cowboys had the Packers right where they wanted them.
Tony Romo was at quarterback, Fourth down. The Packers’ end zone was within reach.
It was time for Romo and the Cowboys — like the T-shirts and the hashtags all said — to Finish the Fight.
In a quiet locker room hallway later, owner Jerry Jones tried to put an accommodating spin on what had just transpired.
Judgment calls, Jones said, are the responsibility of the judges.
“We’ve all agreed to go with the judgment of the officials,” the owner said.
Dez Bryant’s apparent catch on the threshold of the end zone had been overturned by one of the NFL rule book’s most fastidious definitions.
“I’m really not being critical as much as I am reminding everybody that we’ve agreed to live with those judgment calls,” Jones said.
As Jerry knew, just as fate blessed his team last week against the Lions, fate also cruelly snuffed the Cowboys’ season Sunday afternoon.
“C’mon, man, you’ve seen what everybody else has seen,” Bryant said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In what may or may not be a coincidence, however, at least one observer at Lambeau Field had.
Four years ago last September, NFL referee Gene Steratore was on the explanatory end of a would-be game-winning catch by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. That play, reviewed and overturned, was the apparent precedent behind Bryant’s adjudged incompletion Sunday.
“He must maintain possession of the football throughout the entire process of the catch,” explained Steratore, who was also Sunday’s referee.
Dez did maintain possession, Owner Jones assured.
But after viewing the replay, officials ruled otherwise. The ball was turned over on downs, and the Cowboys never saw it again.
For Cowboys fans, there had to be too many coincidences and too much foul karma.
Referee Steratore. Calvin Johnson. The Lions. Calls overturned.
“Clearly, they didn’t see it the way I saw it,” coach Jason Garrett said.
“But I don’t want to make this game about officiating. We had three hours to win this game.”
Garrett, however, was being overly polite. The so-called “Calvin Johnson Rule” was concocted to make it easier on officials, but it again failed the eyeball test.
If it looks like a catch and is originally ruled a catch, why does it have to undergo five minutes of super slow-motion scrutiny?
The 2010 Megatron play and the catch by Bryant were similar, but the TV network showed no replay angle Sunday that confirmed Dez didn’t have control of the ball as he stepped toward the goal line.
“It was a signature play for him,” Garrett said.
Which it was, as was the throw by Romo. Garrett, too, deserves credit for going to the end zone — putting the game and the season in the hands of his two biggest playmakers — on fourth down at the Green Bay 32.
Four minutes later, alas, the Cowboys’ once-magical season was over.
Jones was asked later if that had sunken in yet.
“It’s surreal, it’s surreal,” he said. “I know I’m saying the words and we’re standing here talking about it being over, but I can’t feel like it’s over at all. It wasn’t over, what, 10 minutes ago?
“It’ll soak in here as we head back to Dallas. In the morning, it’ll be hard.”
Five seasons ago, Jones and the Cowboys had found themselves in the same place, eliminated in the NFL’s divisional round, still two steps from returning to the Super Bowl. But this was different, Jones agreed, than that 2010 day when the Cowboys lost to Minnesota 34-3.
“When we got through that initial round that time, I thought we were going to play some teams that are better than we are,” the owner said. “I don’t feel like that right now.
“I think we were a game away from playing a team that we would have had a chance to play and win. So this one does hurt worse, because I think we are right now good enough to compete with the eventual Super Bowl winner and win the ballgame. And that hurts.”
“Never seen anything like it,” Bryant said.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, that wasn’t entirely true.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697