Monday, January 12, 2015

The Morning After: Packers 26, Cowboys 21 (13-5)

Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey (5) reacts after missing a field goal attempt during the first half of an NFC divisional round playoff game at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, in Green Bay. ( Smiley N. Pool / The Dallas Morning News )
There is a whole new generation of Cowboys fandom that now understand playoff heartbreak.  Depending on how old one is, many consider the 1966 NFL Championship Game at Fair Park, Super Bowl 13, or the Catch in San Francisco, maybe the missed call in the 1994 game in Candlestick, or even the 2007 Patrick Crayton drop as the worst moment of their Cowboy fan life.
But, the events of January 11, 2015 will hurt many a fan for a long, long time.
That is largely because of one particular moment, but honestly, there were a number of moments from yesterday that offered the Cowboys a ticket to the NFC Championship Game next week in Seattle, but Dallas could just never bust down the door.  In the NFL Playoffs, where there is no such thing as a best-of-7 series, the hopes and dreams of millions can be snuffed out in 3 hours (or less).  If you zoom in a little closer, they can be snuffed out in a manner of moments.  Just a different step here or there, and the Cowboys not only win on Sunday, but they may win by a healthy margin.
But, those things - which we will detail in this space - did not happen.  Instead, the team that looked to be the better of the two sides on that field in Green Bay for much of the afternoon had to pack up its belongings and head to the airport with their season over.  There is nothing fair about the playoffs.  "Deserved" has nothing to do with it.  Either you make the plays at the appropriate time or the dream dies.  12 teams make the playoffs and 11 will have a similar obituary at some point of this month.  It is what you strive for, because so many NFL teams just want to taste the playoffs - but it is also what awaits; the cold, difficult reality that it is now over and the team must go back to the start and try again next season.
In short, it is why we love this game and why it turns many of us into people we won't recognize in the morning.  The thrill of sending the Lions home one Sunday and the weeklong spoils of that victory, and then the agony of defeat on the muddy track at Lambeau the next.  Welcome to heartbreak, new fans.  8-8 seasons never end like this.
Let's attempt to deconstruct a number of the memorable moments about the finale of an unexpected and unbelievable season of Dallas Cowboys football:
The first half was going so well for Dallas.  Green Bay offered up a physical and impressive opening drive from Eddie Lacy to take the early lead, but the Cowboys showed more resolve as they answered with a demonstrative march of their own that featured 7 DeMarco Murray runs and an unexpected TD catch from Tyler Clutts.  7-7.
Green Bay loses the ball on a strip by Jeremy Mincey and back come the Cowboys again, with Tony Romo beating the blitz to Terrance Williams who breaks a tackle and runs 38 yards for the touchdown.  14-7.
After a Green Bay punt, the Cowboys had the game right where they wanted it.  The huge and energetic crowd was out of the game.  Aaron Rodgers looked like he was not capable of accurate and effective passing that will likely win him another MVP, and Green Bay was starting to question how good it really was due to home playoff losses in both 2011 and 2013 in similar spots.  In short, the Cowboys with the ball and 5:37 left in the 2nd Quarter, had a chance to grab the game by the throat with a long drive that would end the half with even more Dallas points.
It came down to a 3rd and 1 with :40 left from the 27-yard line.  Romo kills whatever play was called in the huddle at the line because he sees something.  It made you think back to the idea of "when you get to the Masters, you don't lay up."  A handoff there to Murray might move the chains and then maybe you are able to go get 7.  Instead, the snap is botched by Romo, the throw was hopeful and out of bounds, and the field goal was ultimately missed.  The ramifications of that were then seen by an obscene throw and catch from Rodgers to Randall Cobb down the left sideline and then a Mason Crosby field goal at the halftime gun.  Instead of Dallas leading 17-7 or 21-7, it is merely 14-10.  That seemed like a real missed opportunity there that changed the complexion of the game pretty severely.
Then, in the 2nd half after the Packers had received the kick and done nothing with it beyond a few more missed throws from Rodgers who just looked out of sorts, the Cowboys again were marching with success on the ground.  Green Bay seemed no match up front for what Dallas can roll out on 1st and 2nd down run plays all day long.
On this one, a 1st and 5 from the Dallas 41 with 11:10 to go in the 3rd, the play went to the right with pulling guards Zack Martin and Ron Leary out in front, DeMarco Murray has a huge path for 59 yards to the end-zone best demonstrated by this snapshot from the Fox broadcast:
As you can see, if Julius Pepper cannot strip Murray of the ball, Murray only has to outrun AJ Hawk for the touchdown, and anyone that has seen Hawk run in 2014 knows that won't be an issue.  Instead, the ball is on the ground and recovered by Datone Jones of the Packers.  Instead of 21-10, it will soon be 14-13.  And the Cowboys had another chance to put real distance between them and a team they had been outplaying, but failed to do so.
This Cowboys team is resilient, however, and have shown us they will simply dig a little deeper when the situation calls for that.  They drove 80 yards on 6 plays to restore order and punch in a goal-line touchdown to grab back a 21-13 lead with 4 powerful runs and two passes where Romo looked efficient and locked in, despite appearing to have hurt his knee on a hit he had to take to make a pass to Jason Wtten.  The Cowboys drove so easily, they needed just 1 2nd down and 0 3rd downs to go 80 yards.  The game, now deep into the 3rd Quarter was still being run by Dallas.
The ensuing kickoff appeared to be yet another moment where Dallas was a whisker away from grabbing the game by the neck - Cobb is returning with the ball out and CJ Spillman knocks it free.  James Hanna has the ball and Tyler Patmon seems to perhaps knock it free as they both try to secure the ball at the Green Bay 22.  You can imagine that if they do - and we are still trying to figure out how they did not - the Cowboys just go back to pounding the rock and either open up a 28-13 lead or at least a 24-13 lead with nearly no time left in the 3rd Quarter.
How James Hanna does not get that ball, we will never know.
But, he didn't.  Green Bay was let off the hook yet again.  And that is when Aaron Rodgers started to take over the game.  From that point of the day - 4:04 left in the 3rd Quarter - to the end of the game, Rodgers, who looked gimpy and pedestrian all day, flipped a switch. And that switch seemed to put him in a place where he could do no wrong.  For the final 3 possessions of the game, the Packers QB threw 16 times, completed 13 of them, for 212 yards and 2 Touchdowns.  That averages out to 13.25 yards per pass play, and conversions of 3rd and 3, 3rd and 15 (a devastating 46 yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams), 3rd and 3, and a ridiculous 3rd and 11 to end the game.
They basically became what many people feared in this matchup: unstoppable for Rod Marinelli and his troops.  They key in that transition seemed to simply ignore running the ball and put Rodgers back there with 5 targets and spread the Cowboys out and pick on the lesser defenders.  When they spread you out with 5, it seems to declare man coverage and safeties back to clean up the mess, not really allowing the ability to blitz without risking a major catastrophe with one broken tackle.  The Cowboys offense has also fallen in love with this strategy point and the tale of two empty backfields and a QB in shotgun picking apart both defenses was a real storyline of the day.
But, Dallas would get the ball back, down 26-21 after Rodgers' best throw ended up as a touchdown to rookie Tight End Richard Rodgers.  There was still 9:06 to play and the Packers still showed no real ability to get a stop against a Murray-heavy attack.
30 yards around right tackle put the Cowboys near midfield.  A comeback route to Bryant by the sideline chopped the field down to 40 yards.  The march was on.  On 2nd down, Romo - who was efficient and careful all day - took a coverage sack.  If there is anything one could say that he might have done better in these playoffs is to throw the ball away a few more times.  He took 4 sacks on Sunday (after 6 against Detroit) and at least half of them might have been avoided if Romo was willing to throw in the general direction of a receiver and save himself and the lost yardage.  He was protecting the ball, but in doing so that put them behind the chains a bit.
Yet on 3rd and 11, they go back 8 1/2 on the dump down to Cole Beasley.  That left 4th and a long 2.  Again, the high percentage play is Witten or Beasley underneath (the Packers seemed to concede the pass to Beasley as they blitzed the corner that was on him and the safety who was responsible had no chance to stop a quick conversion that would have moved the chains and might have stripped down several more minutes of the game with Green Bay having only 1 more timeout), but they were not going to lay-up.  They were going for the win.
The pass was perfect.  The catch was absurd.  The play was one for the ages.  And yet, upon further review, it did not stand as the officials determined the ball hit the ground before it was completely secured.  I disagreed with the rule for Calvin Johnson years ago and I disagreed with the ruling yesterday.  It was a catch for me as his reach for the goal-line seemed like a football move if there ever was one.  At worst, it should have been 1st and goal from the 1 and the likelihood of a touchdown and a Cowboys lead seemed pretty automatic.
That said, I do think it is difficult to them assume Dallas wins, based on the show Rodgers was putting on in the other direction and with 4:00 to play.  But, unfortunately, we will never know.
The call, the missed opportunities, and the inability to get Green Bay off the field on 3rd Downs (9 for 14!), all conspired to end a wonderful Cowboys season with feelings of empty despair.
This team was in the mix for the Super Bowl in 2014 with a team that was no fluke.  They took their team of warriors to many cities this season and left with victories in all but the finale.  In that game, they controlled the game for 3 Quarters and were turned away from "finishing the fight" when the officials did not cooperate and the opponent made one more play.
Even with the call as it was, you would have loved to see Romo, Murray, Witten, and Bryant with one last chance for drama with 2:00 left, but Rodgers kept moving the chains and that controversial play was the last offensive snap the Cowboys would ever get in 2014.
They would never lay up.  They went for it.  And were unlucky in the end.
But, that was a pretty special ride.  And the hope for the future for the Dallas Cowboys hasn't been this bright in ages.  Once the hurt fades, the accomplishments of this season will feel pretty rewarding to all who fell back in love with this franchise this season.
It was quite a run.

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