ARLINGTON, Texas — After being involved in yet another emotional thriller, rallying for two late touchdowns only to lose, the Dallas Cowboys still control their own destiny.
It turns out a gut-wrenching 34-31 overtime loss to New Orleans on Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium was a non-factor concerning playoff scenarios.
Dallas' regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins is a winner-take-all showdown for the NFC East title.
After all the close calls during a season that's included three overtime games, the Cowboys' fate is simple. Win and you're in. Lose and your season is over.
“The only reason you play is to get your team into that position to get in the playoffs so you can have a chance,” said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who threw for 416 yards and four touchdowns. “When you get in anything can happen. We've seen that far too many times.”
Romo and his teammates weren't assured of that scenario after the game. The Cowboys received a reprieve when Baltimore defeated the New York Giants late Sunday afternoon.
“We always thought, even with if (we won) today, we were going to have to win against the Redskins,” said Dallas owner Jerry Jones. “It certainly turns out we do.”
Like so many of Dallas' games this season, the Cowboys supplied late-game drama.
Dallas scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes just to force overtime. Drama? The Cowboys' game-tying score came on fourth down with 15 seconds left in regulation.
The Cowboys, though, failed to sustain momentum. On their first overtime possession they punted after four plays. They would never get the ball back.
Accumulating 562 yards, the Saints quickly marched into Dallas territory. New Orleans won it on a 20-yard Garrett Hartley field goal following a bizarre game-deciding play.
Dallas rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne stripped Saints receiver Marques Colston at the 25-yard line. The ball bounced all the way inside the 5. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham recovered the fumble to set up Hartley's game-winner.
“It was very frustrating,” Claiborne said. “You're taught to try to get the ball out and it backfired on us ... We just need to go out and get a win in this last game and see what happens.”
The Cowboys needed a frantic rally to force their third overtime game this season, the fifth game decided on the game's final play.
Trailing 31-17 with under five minutes left, Romo directed an 80-yard drive, capped by a 16-yard TD pass to Dwayne Harris.
After forcing a Saints punt, Dallas took over at its own 36 with 1:29 remaining. On fourth down, Romo threw a 19-yard to Miles Austin to tie the game 31-31 with 15 seconds left.
“This one was tough,” said Jason Witten, who broke the NFL single-season receptions record for a tight end. “Games come down to a handful of plays, especially for us this year ... We've got to move forward. We (still) have an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”
Dallas' defense is banged up heading into its winner-take-all showdown. Defensive star DeMarcus Ware missed most of the fourth quarter with a nagging sprained shoulder but is expected to play against the Redskins.
The Cowboys have been relying on Romo and a high-powered offense that currently features one of the league's hottest quarterback/receiver combos.
In Sunday's loss, former OSU standout Dez Bryant hauled in nine passes for a career-high 224 receiving yards, highlighted by two 58-yard touchdowns in the first half.
Having scored at least one touchdown in seven consecutive games, Bryant has accumulated 46 catches for 808 yards and 10 TDs the past seven games.
One negative was running back DeMarco Murray fumbled for the second consecutive week. This one was costly.
Former OU teammate Curtis Lofton stripped Murray late in the third quarter. Lofton recovered the fumble at the 5-yard line to set up the Saints' go-ahead score. On its next possession, New Orleans went 80 yards for a 31-17 lead.
But similar to recent wins over Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Cowboys rallied.
“That's kind of how it's been all year,” Austin said. “We're going to keep fighting until the end. Unfortunately we fell a little short today.”
The reason the Cowboys still control their own destiny is if they defeat Washington both teams would finish 4-2 in the division. The next tiebreaker is record versus common opponents. With a win, the Cowboys would be 8-4, the Redskins 7-5.
Despite the loss, the Cowboys caught a break.
“Nothing is a big break when you have to play on their home field,” Murray said. “That's going to be a hard team to beat. It won't be easy. We just have to have a short-term memory and move on.”