Cowboys' collapse is a late-season tradition
IRVING, Texas — Maybe the Dallas Cowboys' two straight losses in December have nothing to do with the calendar.
Maybe they just aren't very good.
That's one of the theories going around now that the playoffs are approaching and the Cowboys are retreating — again.
A disastrous December has become a holiday tradition in Dallas, one that dates to the mid-1990s. Based on that reputation, observers were skeptical of the Cowboys even though they came into the final month leading the NFC East at 8-3.
The team hated the guilt by association, insisting this was a new year with a new group of guys, but so far the results are the same: two straight losses, the first time that's happened all season.
Snapping out of this skid will be tough. Dallas is headed to New Orleans for a Saturday night game against the undefeated Saints and a Superdome crowd that's sure to be, uh, boisterous.
The Cowboys could lose that game and still get in the playoffs. But a third straight defeat would clinch a 13th straight December without a winning record and would leave them ripe for a knockout.
"We're not down, we're not out," receiver Roy Williams said Tuesday. "We're still going to play. Got a tough week this week and a bunch of naysayers around the country, but in this room, we know what we can do."
A victory could be the springboard they need. A 3-0 finish is the only way the Cowboys are guaranteed to salvage the division title.
But who outside of team headquarters believes that can happen?
"We just have to play better football, period," quarterback Tony Romo said following a 20-17 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. "We all need to raise our level of play, each one. If we do that, I think this team has the ability."
They haven't shown it. And that goes way back before December.
Dallas is 5-2 at home, with both losses to the only teams in the group that currently have winning records. Those games were played in front of the two largest crowds at their new $1.2 billion stadium, yet it was the opponents who made the crucial plays in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys are 1-5 overall against teams that currently have a winning record. Two losses to the Giants and another to the Packers gives those teams the tiebreakers, should a wild-card spot come down to that.
Owner Jerry Jones is quick to remind everyone that the Arizona Cardinals gagged late last season, then rebounded in time to reach the Super Bowl. Go back another year and there's the touchstone of the New York Giants playing well but losing to then-unbeaten New England, the rare "good loss" that sparked them on their way to winning the Super Bowl -- a run Cowboys fans remember all too well because the Giants took out the 13-3 division champs from Dallas along the way.
"I know that we have a team that is capable of winning against any opponent," Jones said after the San Diego game, adding that he believes in them because "this team is mentally tough to get it done."
Again, there's a lack of supporting evidence.
The offense gains plenty of yards, but points is another story. Touchdowns are hard to come by (San Diego stuffed three straight tries from the 1) and field goals are iffy. Nick Folk has missed six of his last nine tries, with at least one in each of the last five games. Both of the last two losses would've been much tighter at the time of his misses.
The Cowboys tried putting heat on Folk with an internal competition, him vs. kickoff specialist David Buehler. Yesterday's practice scorecard: Folk 2 of 4, Buehler 0 of 3, with his misses going wide, wider and widest, all to the right.
The defense has been solid, including holding the Chargers to a season-low 20 points Sunday. But they gave up 10 in the fourth quarter, including a drive that chewed up more than 7 minutes.
They also might be without their best pass rusher against the Saints as DeMarcus Ware is recovering from a sprained neck that was so frightening when it happened that he was strapped to a backboard and taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Coach Wade Phillips doubles as the defensive coordinator, but he won't have either job much longer if he can't turn things around quickly.
Phillips is 3-8 in December and 0-1 in January. He's lost a total of only seven games over the months of September, October and November during his first three seasons in Dallas, but Jones is unlikely to pick up the option for a fourth season under Phillips without a solid finish.
"I didn't think we'd lose a game this year but we've lost five," Williams said. "So every team is beatable in this league. It just depends on what team shows up on Sunday. If we pack our bags and show up in New Orleans on Saturday night, we should be victorious."
Regardless of how this Saints game turns out, Williams is looking forward to the rematch. In the playoffs.
"This is a two-round fight," Williams said, "and this is just Round 1 in my eyes."
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