ARLINGTON – It’s obvious that if Jason Witten had a choice, he’d rather have the Cowboys reach the playoffs than accomplish an individual record.
But he wasn’t given that option Sunday. The Cowboys had their playoff hopes removed from their control with a 34-31 loss to the New Orleans Saints in overtime. However, the game proved to be a record-setting one for Witten, who became the NFL’s record holder for receptions in a single season by a tight end.
Witten’s two overtime grabs gave him 103 on the season, one more than Tony Gonzalez achieved in a record-setting 2004 season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“This is something that’s special, obviously,” Witten said. “There have been a lot of good tight ends play for a long time and I have so much respect for the game. To be in this position and break that it’s special, probably more so this year because of the way the season started for me.”
Witten, a seven-time Pro Bowler, suffered a lacerated spleen during the preseason opener in Oakland. Many thought he would miss the season opener against the New York Giants and, instead, set his sights on playing in Week 2. But Witten played through the injury and caught two passes against the Giants.
As Witten fought to get healthy, his play suffered. During the first three weeks, Witten dropped five passes. But he bounced back in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, catching 13 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Over the last 12 weeks, Witten has had at least six receptions in all but two outings.
“I’m thankful I have him as my tight end,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. “Jason’s had an incredible season, an incredible career and it keeps getting better and better.”
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, a six-time Pro Bowler, missed the fourth quarter because of a strained right shoulder and his status is unclear for next week. Ware never has missed a game in his Cowboys’ career.
Ware, already playing with a hyperextended elbow, returned for one play in overtime _ to rush the passer on third-and-3 _ but was not on the field when the Saints gained 31 yards on the pass and recovered fumble play that set up their winning field goal.
Ware, the team’s sack leader (11.5), did not talk after the game. Fellow outside linebacker Anthony Spencer said Ware is “one of the best this game has ever seen” and having him on the sideline “just takes away stuff” from what the Cowboys’ defense can do schematically.
In addition, linebacker Ernie Sims sustained a concussion on the final play of the first quarter and did not return. The departure of Sims, who also sustained a concussion in last week’s game against Pittsburgh, shifted the brunt of playing time at inside linebacker to Dan Connor (12 tackles) and Brady Poppinga (4 tackles) in a game that knocked the Cowboys (8-7) out of a share of first place in the NFC East standings.
Regardless of Ware’s availability in next week’s winner-take-all game against Washington (9-6) for the NFC East title, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he expects his defense to perform.
"I don’t know of a team in the league that’s not filling in," Jones said. "Now, we missed DeMarcus out there for some time today. But still, we’re pretty sound on where our big emphasis is in being sound and having talent. I expect our defense to play."
The Cowboys got some much needed help from the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday afternoon, giving them a second chance to make the playoffs. The Ravens’ 33-14 victory over the New York Giants means the Cowboys will win the NFC East with a victory next week.
It is the same scenario as last season when the Cowboys lost to the Giants’ 31-14 in the season finale for the NFC East title.
"I think you’ve got to move forward. This one is tough, and it’ll stay there for a while," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "…But you’ve got to be able to move forward, and regardless, we’ve got to go play the Redskins and play them tough and see where it falls."
The first tiebreaker is head-to-head, and the Cowboys lost to the Redskins 38-31 on Thanksgiving Day at Cowboys Stadium. The second tiebreaker to decide a division title is division record. The Cowboys would tie the Redskins with a 4-2 division record, with a victory over Washington next week. The third tiebreaker is common opponents and the Cowboys are 5-3 and the Redskins are 4-4 against common opponents outside the division.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cowboys lost control of their season.
It’s something coach Jason Garrett didn’t want. It’s something Jerry Jones doesn’t want but that’s the reality of things as the Cowboys head into Christmas Day.
New Orleans defeated Dallas, 34-31 in overtime at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Cowboys playoff hopes are now on life support thanks to this defeat.
What it means?: The Cowboys needed to win their last two regular season games to clinch the NFC East. But the loss, combine with the Washington Redskins victory, keeps the Cowboys on the outside of the playoff picture. Later today, a New York Giants victory will also hurt the Cowboys chances of reaching the postseason. Wins by the Giants and Redskins only hurt the Cowboys. But any loss by the Cowboys’ rivals helps.
DeMarcus Ware’s injury: The Cowboys outside linebacker missed a bulk of the second half with a right shoulder strain. Ware was battling a hyper-extended elbow and a shoulder that was popping out of place. With Ware out of the game, the Cowboys asked Victor Butler and Anthony Spencer to pick up the pass rush in Ware’s absence. Ware did return with 12:05 to play in overtime for one snap then left.
DeMarco Murray’s fumble: With 4:17 to play in the third quarter, Murray fumbled at the Cowboys 5. He was stripped by linebacker Curtis Lofton, who also recovered. Murray lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground. The turnover, with the game tied at 17-17, was costly. Drew Brees found Pierre Thomas for the touchdown to give the Saints a 24-17 lead. It would be a lead the Saints would barely hold onto.
Dez Bryant’s big day: Dez Bryant finished with nine catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He’s scored a touchdown in his last seven games and continues to be a big play threat for the Cowboys. However, after a solid first half effort by Bryant, he didn’t make a catch until the fourth quarter.
The fumble or was it a catch?: The game turned in overtime when Drew Brees completed a pass to Marques Colston. Morris Claiborne striped Colston of the ball and the ball rolled down the field where Jimmy Graham and Eric Frampton gave chase. Graham recovered at the Cowboys 2. After a review to see if Colston gained possession of the ball before he lost it, the play was confirmed. Kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 20-yarder to clinch the victory.
Jason Witten sets single-season record: Tight end Jason Witten finished with six catches for 60 yards. He now has 103 catches on the season setting the NFL single-season record for catches by a tight end, breaking the mark set by Tony Gonzalez. Witten caught a five-yard pass in overtime to break the record.
Who’s next?: The Redskins host the Cowboys in the regular season finale and a victory by the home team clinches the NFC East. But the Cowboys need help to reach the postseason, like a Giants loss.
The Cowboys are making December one to remember for all the right reasons. They’ve won three games this month and five of their last six. Now, they face New Orleans, a 6-8 team that is on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. The Saints have been damaged by the penalties stemming from the bounty scandal that rocked the NFL in the off-season. But they still have one of the most prolific offenses in the league, producing more points on average than every other team except New England. Here is a look at how both the Cowboys and Saints match up:
When the Cowboys run
DeMarco Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in a game once this season. But his impact is far greater than his output. His presence is vital to the Cowboys’ success. Since entering the league in 2011, Dallas is 10-1 when Murray has 14 or more carries. Murray should get plenty of opportunities Sunday against a New Orleans team allowing 146.3 rushing yards per game – the second-highest average in the NFL this season.
When the Cowboys pass
In the last seven games, Tony Romo has revived a season that seemed headed for disaster. Since Nov. 1, he has thrown 13 touchdowns passes and only three interceptions. He has also passed for 300 or more yards five times. Romo’s strong performance has coincided with the most productive stretch of Dez Bryant’s career. Bryant has collected eight touchdown receptions in the last six games and has a good chance to find the end zone again against a Saints team giving up 287 yards per game through the air – the second-highest average in the NFL this season.
When the Saints run
New Orleans’ commitment to its ground game can be questioned. This season, the Saints have rushed the ball 314 times – the second-lowest total in the NFL this season. But when New Orleans has turned to its running backs, they have been successful, averaging 4.45 yards per carry. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory form a strong backfield that will test a Cowboys defense featuring a patchwork front. But Dallas held strong against Pittsburgh last week, limiting the Steelers to 69 yards on the ground.
When the Saints pass
Drew Brees has become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history directing a high-powered offense. Even in this season of disappointment, Brees has excelled. He leads the league in passing yards, throwing for 4,335 in 14 games. But his record has been blighted by 18 interceptions – the highest total in the league. Brees commands an air attack that Dallas’ secondary will be challenged to stop. Four Saints players are among the 50 NFL players with the most receptions. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for more than 250 yards in three of their last four games.
In less than two seasons, Dan Bailey has emerged as one of the NFL’s most consistent kickers and a key contributor for the Cowboys. In an overtime victory over Pittsburgh last Sunday, Bailey made his seventh game-winning field goal, tying a franchise record. This season, he has connected on 27 of 29 attempts and every kick inside of 50 yards. Bailey has been considerably more successful than Southlake’s own Garrett Hartley. Hartley has made only 15 of 18 field-goal tries and his conversion rate is ranked in the bottom half of the league.
The New Orleans Saints haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention. But with eight losses their chances of qualifying for the postseason are extremely slim. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have a very realistic shot of playing beyond the regular season. Their confidence is high after their recent stretch of success and they will be motivated to earn their sixth victory in their last seven games. A rejuvenated home crowd should help them.
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