IRVING, Texas - Texas Stadium isn't one of the great sporting venues of all time, but it is one of the nation's most famous. The Cowboys went to Super Bowls in four of the first eight years they played here, and the heroics of "Captain Comeback" Roger Staubach forged the America's Team legend in the '70s.
For the final game, the stage was set for another great comeback. With 6 minutes, 30 seconds to go, the Baltimore Ravens, making their first Texas Stadium visit right at closing time, held a 19-10 lead.
It didn't happen.
Even though Tony Romo and the passing attack finally awoke for two late touchdown drives, the Ravens' Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain silenced the crowd with one-play touchdown drives on improbable runs of 77 and 82 yards.
The Ravens' 33-24 upset of the Cowboys had the Texas Stadium fans booing the final performance here. It meant for a restrained celebration of former Cowboys heroes after the game. More significantly, it left Dallas with a 9-6 record and dented playoff hopes.
The Cowboys did get a reprieve yesterday, thanks to losses by the Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They still need to win next Sunday against the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field to reach the postseason.
"It's a disappointing loss for us," coach Wade Phillips said.
We should never be shocked by these late-season crash-and-burns because they happen every December. For 12 straight seasons, the Cowboys have failed to have a winning record after November.
But to see the offense, in particular the passing game, fall apart at season's end is stunning.
Romo, who wasn't good in a 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh two weeks ago, was off again Saturday night. Passes meant for Terrell Owens, Jason Witten and Roy Williams in the first half didn't just barely miss.
Frequently, they weren't even close. He was intercepted twice on desperation heaves that were completely unnecessary. One of them came on a second and 3 at midfield.
Was it the pinkie finger, the injured back or the remnants of a fractured receiving corps coming home to roost?
The offensive line had another awful night as the Ravens kept relentless pressure on Romo, even while keeping their safeties deep.
"We had a little trouble recognizing who was a linebacker, who was a lineman," Romo said. "We made a lot of mental errors offensively in this game. It came back to haunt us."
It's true that the Cowboys have seen some seriously good defenses the last three weeks. That's no excuse for a total inability to make plays.
In the first three quarters, the Cowboys' only touchdown drive followed a fumble by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
The drive covered all of 4 yards.
By the end of the night, Romo's stats looked passable.
For the first 31/2 quarters, Romo completed 14 of 25 passes for 90 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
In the last half of the fourth quarter, Romo hit 10 of 20 passes for 162 yards with touchdowns to Owens and Witten.
But by the time the offense was clicking, the defense had given up. How else to explain two runs covering 159 yards on the Ravens' final two meaningful plays from scrimmage?
There have been 38 seasons of strange and unlikely moments in this stadium. Very few were any more bizarre than the final minutes of the final regular-season game.
In those minutes, the Cowboys were exposed as pretenders. The good will generated by their victory over the New York Giants last week seemed an eternity ago.
Teams that lose the way the Cowboys did Saturday night don't deserve trips to the playoffs.
In all likelihood, they won't get one. There was nothing in their final Texas Stadium showing to suggest they will win in Philadelphia next Sunday.