Cowboys Sinking and Chargers Soaring? Must Be December
The San Diego Chargers came away from Cowboys Stadium on Sunday with a 20-17 victory, leaving the staggering home team with consecutive losses. And that means that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was the only Dallas voice that mattered in the aftermath.
"This is a bitter pill to swallow here at home," said Jones, whose 8-5 team finds itself fighting for a postseason pulse yet again, with a Week 15 trip to New Orleans to face the undefeated Saints, followed by NFC East battles at the Redskins and against the Eagles at home. "But there's no doubt in my mind when we step out here [in practice], we'll have a good week. And we'll be down there competing to play."
Jones was too classy to toss Phillips to the sharks publicly with three games remaining and the playoffs still a mathematical possibility. He was too shrewd to openly question the Cowboys' run-heavy play calling that worked at times but ultimately came up short, amassing only 108 total yards on 27 attempts.
Jones also held his tongue when asked repeatedly about the Cowboys' frustrating second quarter 1st-and-goal sequence from the 4-yard line that saw Marion Barber try to pound it in four times on draw plays off right guard. Barber failed four times, keeping the December-friendly Chargers -- winners of eight in a row -- in front, 10-3.
On first down, Barber picked up three yards and was stopped by Chargers backup linebacker Brandon Siler. Three more times, backup inside linebacker Tim Dobbins stuck Barber for no gain.
Even that fourth-down try, when the Cowboys tried to get cute and use Barber as a fullback from the I-formation lined up in front of Felix Jones, Dobbins was right there. Because he knew what was coming.
"In our minds, we already knew [Barber] wasn't blocking," Dobbins said. "We knew he had to get the ball. He's not getting paid to block. Everybody knows that. Everyone in the stands knew that."
So what did Jones think about it? No second guessing, the owner said. Every play on that 14-play, 72-yard drive, with the exception of one Tony Romo incomplete pass attempt, was a rushing call and six of those runs led to six Dallas first downs.
"Not one bit. You might say that the ballgame was [over] right there," Jones said of the goal-line sequence. "I would have bet the ballgame on four tries the way we were running the ball. So I can take exception with maybe something we did on a block or if we were trying to do something else. I don't know.
"But I don't take exception to running the ball four times there, no."
You could argue that the Cowboys ran four consecutive rushing plays and went for it on fourth down because they had zero faith in kicker Nick Folk, who has missed seven of his last 17 field goals heading into the game. He's now whiffed on six of his last 10, after missing a 42-yard attempt with 45 seconds remaining before halftime following an intercepted Philip Rivers pass.
"Certainly you are not going to make them all," Phillips said, "but you need to make a certain percentage and he is not hitting that percentage rate right now. We changed holders, we hoped that would go through and it didn't."
Folk's 31-yard field goal with 8:32 left in the opening quarter gave the Cowboys their only lead.
"He kicked one earlier, certainly one that we needed," Phillips said, "but when we got a big turnover and we wanted to punch it in and we didn't ... we at least thought we would have a field goal there to make a difference. But we didn't."
Said Romo, who was summoned to take over the holder duties from Mat McBriar, "I think you believe in your guys. I liked the call, and I'm sure you guys did, too, being inside the 1 [yard line] and with the guys we have up front and our backs -- it's just, for whatever reason, we didn't get it done.
"No excuses, this team didn't get it done today and we know how important it was but now the only thing we can control is this effort this week and preparation and commitment to get ready for the New Orleans Saints."
The December trending that took place in Arlington is just impossible to overlook.
The Cowboys, now 0-2 for the month, were 1-3 in December last season, and went 2-2 in the final month of 2007, leading to a 13-3 finish and a first-round playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. December has cost Dallas the playoffs -- as well as playoff momentum.
Romo is now 5-10 in December for his career, despite completing 19 of 30 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.
Then there are the can't-miss Chargers (10-3), who now have a two-game lead in the AFC West over the Denver Broncos and can clinch a first-round playoff bye with a victory next week at home against the Bengals.
Coach Norv Turner -- the onetime Cowboys offensive coordinator on Jimmy Johnson's Super Bowl teams -- is now 11-0 as the Chargers' coach in December; Rivers, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 272 yards, one touchdown and the interception, is 16-0 as a starting quarterback in the final month of the year, and is experiencing perhaps his finest season as a pro.
But San Diego's late-season mastery has netted only one close call with the Super Bowl, the 21-12 AFC Championship loss on Jan. 20, 2007, to the then-unbeaten New England Patriots in Foxborough.
On Sunday, Jones was quick to praise the offensive-minded coach he overlooked in favor of hiring the defensive-minded Phillips to replace retiring Bill Parcells in 2007.
"I will give Norv all the credit in the world for how he's got his team playing, and certainly that was vintage Norv Turner to hit some of those passes near the end, and that's what you hope we can have," Jones said.
What's the key to a 16-game winning streak in December? Turner and his players have said ad nauseum they would prefer to play consistent football in September and not have to rely on late-season surges.
This season, the Chargers have stayed fairly healthy, are relying on multiple playmakers on both sides of the ball and are playing with more consistency than ever under Turner's watch.
"I think we've got a very good football team, we've got very good players, we've got playmakers that are capable of making plays ... as I said, to make a difference in a football game, and they step up and do that," Turner said. "Our early-season [problems] have been well-covered.
"We've had different situations that kept us from being our best. But I think this year we're as healthy as a team could ask to be. We've got great leadership on our football team, they're very focused on what we need to get done, so that helps you win games on a weekly basis."