ARLINGTON — Unexpectedly, drama filled AT&T Stadium. Hope – and the Cowboys — were alive with less than two minutes remaining in tonight’s season finale.
But backup quarterback Kyle Orton, subbing for injured Tony Romo, threw an interception with 1:43 left, clinching Philadelphia’s 24-22 NFC East-clinching victory over the Dallas Cowboys before a sellout crowd of 91,166.
The game was closer and more thrilling than expected, but result was all-too-familiar for the Cowboys. For the fourth straight year, they’ll watch the playoffs from home.
For the third straight year, Dallas lost a win-or-stay home regular-season finale and finished 8-8. Philadelphia, not Dallas, is the NFC’s No. 3 seed and will host New Orleans next Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.
The 25th season of Jerry Jones’ ownership, like so many others since the early ‘90s Super Bowl glory years, ended with a thud. The past 17 seasons have produced seven playoff appearances and one solitary postseason victory.
The current playoff drought is the third-longest in the franchise’s 54-year history, behind those incurred during the franchise’s first six seasons (1960-1965) and the five-year drought of 1986-1990.
Before this season, Jones hired a 73-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Head coach Jason Garrett ceded play-calling responsibilities to Bill Callahan, but the Cowboys remained on a treadmill of mediocrity.
The Cowboys pulled within two points with 3:50 remaining when, on fourth and nine, Kyle Orton found Dez Bryant over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
Orton’s 2-point conversion pass attempt for Bryant in the left corner of the end zone, however, was broken up by Philadelphia’s Cary Williams.
The Cowboys forced the Eagles to punt and took over on their 32 with 1:49 left, but on the next play Orton threw behind Miles Austin and the pass was intercepted by Brandon Boykin.
Even though Jones has emphasized several times in recent weeks that coach Jason Garrett will return next season, the Cowboys enter an offseason of uncertainty, with many of their core players in their 30s.
The questions start with Romo, who was at home Sunday, recovering from Friday back surgery for what sources said was a herniated disc.
Romo had started 47 straight games before Sunday. His replacement, 31-year-old Orton, brought in a 35-34 career record as a starter and had thrown just 15 passes in two seasons as a Cowboy.
Despite watching DeMarco Murray fumble on the game’s possession and seeing the Cowboys falling behind, 10-0, fans implored the Cowboys with the loudest noise cheers of the season and by twirling team-issued while rally towels.
It seemed to work. Dallas pulled within 10-7 with 8:16 left in the first half when Orton passed to rookie tight end Gavin Escobar, who somersaulted into the end zone to complete a 17-yard scoring play.
With two minutes remaining in the half, Dallas had a first down near midfield and was in position to tie, take the lead or at least enter halftime with a three-point deficit. An Orton pass, however, bounced off tight end Jason Witten’s hands and into those of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
Two plays and 34 seconds later, the Eagles took a 17-7 lead when Foles found a wide-open tight end Brent Celek.
The sequence could have been devastating, but the Cowboys drove for a 44-yard Dan Bailey field goal with 18 seconds left in the first half, then added a 43-yarder by Bailey on the opening possession of the second half.
That made it Philadelphia 17, Dallas 13. Anyone’s game.
And on the Eagles’ next series, Jason Hatcher sacked Foles, causing a fumble that DeMarcus Ware recovered on the Philadelphia 22. All Dallas could manage was another Bailey field goal, but Philadelphia’s lead was down to one.
Ware, maligned much of the season for producing only six sacks in 12 injury-plagued games prior to Sunday, came up big again, stopping Foles inside the Cowboys’ 1 on a fourth-down sneak with 31 seconds left in the third quarter.
Some fans will say Romo’s back injury sealed this as a lost Cowboys’ season. Others will recall early-season missed opportunities, especially the 17-16 defeat at Kansas City in Week 2 and the 51-48 home loss to Denver in the fifth game.
Of course, the 37-36 home loss to Green Bay in the season’s 14th game will be long-remembered as one of the biggest collapses in franchise history, with Dallas blowing a 26-3 halftime lead.
The season’s turning point, though, was game No. 8. Playing at Detroit’s Ford Field on Oct. 27 and riding a rare two-game winning streak, the 4-3 Cowboys had a 10-point lead with four minutes left.
But instead of climbing two games above .500 entering a home game against Minnesota, the Cowboys disintegrated. Highland Park product Matthew Stafford’s touchdown with 12 seconds left enabled the Lions to pull out a 31-30 victory.
Defensive breakdowns remained a season-long problem _ until Sunday, when the Cowboys harnessed a Philadelphia offense that was averaging 28 points a game and coming off a 54-point explosion against Chicago.