Published December 25, 2011
ARLINGTON, Texas – Tony Romo was in the locker room dealing with a passing hand that wasn't broken, but was swelling.
At the same time, the New York Giants were polishing off a victory that rendered the result of this game just about meaningless, and turned their game against the Cowboys in New York next weekend into a battle for the NFC East title.
So Jerry Jones left his midfield viewing booth and marched right to coach Jason Garrett on the sideline. Neither would give a clear explanation of their conversation, but it's obvious how the chat went considering Romo didn't return and oft-injured running back Felix Jones soon joined him on the sideline.
Missing those crucial players, and lacking intensity, the Cowboys came within 7 seconds of being shut out at home for the first time in 20 years, losing 20-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday.
"You have to step back and understand what the situation is," Garrett said. "We need to be as healthy as we can be next week."
New York's victory eliminated the Eagles from the playoffs and meant the Cowboys couldn't clinch the division title with a win. Dallas could've still been playing for a wild-card backup plan, but was clearly more concerned about getting ready for the "win and you're in" route to the playoffs, especially after Romo banged his hand on the helmet of a defender.
Garrett said the club had decided earlier in the week who would and wouldn't play if the Giants won. Garrett said Romo's injury added a new wrinkle.
The question of why Jones decided to personally go over the plan with Garrett again, and in light of the Romo injury, wasn't really answered.
"I did want to go and communicate real good and we did communicate real good," Jones said. "These are decisions made by Jason, ultimately."
Michael Vick threw touchdown passes on his first drive and just before halftime, which was all the scoring the Eagles would need. They added a pair of field goals in the second half, while their defense prevented an offense powered by Stephen McGee, Sammy Morris and Chauncey Washington from sustaining any drives.
Dallas' only points came after a blocked punt set up McGee on the Philadelphia 16-yard line with 19 seconds left. He ran for 12 yards, then hit Miles Austin for a 4-yard touchdown pass to avoid the first shutout since November 2003, and the first at home since September 1991, also against Philadelphia.
"I just feel like we dodged a bullet — Romo is healthy, that's critical to us," Jones said. "I certainly agree with how we played the game tonight, and who played what, when and how they played — complete agreement with it."
Dallas (8-7) lost for the third time in four games, guaranteeing another losing record after Thanksgiving. If the Cowboys end up missing the playoffs, this flop at the finish will loom large all offseason. Of course, if they win the division, it'll only be a footnote.
The upcoming week will be filled with all sorts of similar high-stakes ramifications that will be riding on the finale for both Dallas and New York. Anticipating huge interest — and high ratings — that game has been moved to NBC's prime-time Sunday night showcase.
"If at the beginning of the year you told us we would have a chance to win the division in Week 17, we would have jumped at it," tight end Jason Witten said. "We will have to play our best football. It's on the road. It's going to be tough. But that's the environment you have to take. The Giants have been in these situations, too. It's going to be a huge challenge."
When this game kicked off, the Giants were up by only six points midway through the fourth quarter, so the Cowboys and Eagles still had a lot to play for.
Philadelphia got the ball first and Vick picked up where he left off the last time these teams met, cruising 80 yards in eight plays for a 7-0 lead. Then the Eagles snuffed Romo, forcing a punt from around midfield.
On the final play of that series, Romo rushed a third-down pass to avoid a sack. On his follow-through, he smacked his passing hand on Jason Babin's helmet. That's when things got about as interesting as they'd be the rest of the afternoon.
The drama began with Jones leaving his midfield viewing booth to chat with Garrett. He returned to his booth about the same time Romo returned to the sideline.
Romo couldn't grip the ball or take a snap, so he got his hand and wrist wrapped. While he was trading his helmet for a baseball cap, team vice president Stephen Jones arrived on the sideline and spoke with trainers. Felix Jones then joined Romo as being done for the day.
McGee — who moved up from third-stringer to backup when Jon Kitna went on injured reserve — took over for Romo and went 24 of 38 for 182 yards, with four runs for 28 yards.
McGee beat the Eagles in last season's finale, but he struggled to even sustain drives this time. It didn't help that his running backs were Morris (pulled from retirement before last week's game) and Washington (signed off the street this week).
"It took me a little while to get comfortable," McGee said. "I don't get very many reps, basically never in a real game. I felt like I made progress through the game."
Philadelphia (7-8) won its third straight, giving the preseason "Dream Team" and midseason nightmare the chance to break even if it can beat the Redskins at home in its finale next weekend. The Eagles also swept the season series against the Cowboys for the first time since 2006, having clobbered Dallas 34-7 in October.
"If we had gotten into the playoffs we would have definitely done some damage," Vick said. "It's unfortunate we didn't. That's the game of football. We made some mistakes early (this season) and got behind in the win-loss column. But we're just happy we're finishing strong."
The defense sure is. Philadelphia has allowed just 36 points and 683 yards over the last three games, with 16 sacks.
"I think it took a little time to gel," said defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, one of the offseason additions whose arrival raised expectations. "I guess it took longer than we anticipated. We just didn't get the job done. You can make all the excuses in the world, but they really don't mean anything. At the end of the season when you look at our final record, there's not going to be asterisk by it. You just have to own up to it. We let a lot of opportunities get away from us early. All we can do now is control what we do in the future."
Vick was 18 of 32 for 293 yards, with the touchdowns going to Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek. Jason Avant nearly had another TD, but fumbled inches before touching the pylon, resulting in a touchback for the Cowboys.
DeSean Jackson caught five passes for 90 yards, and ran for 27 yards on two end arounds, both on consecutive plays.
Alex Henery kicked field goals of 43 and 51 yards for the Eagles' only points in the second half.
"They're disappointed we don't have a shot at the playoffs," coach Andy Reid said. "At the same time I was pleased with the energy they brought to the football field. They wanted to dominate and play aggressive football. Nobody was hanging their heads."