Close games keep Cowboys from playoffs

IRVING, Texas -- For the fourth straight year the NFL playoffs will begin with the Dallas Cowboys as spectators.

The reason is simple. The Cowboys weren't good enough. Stop the presses, I know, although I'm not sure that has the same effect with the internet these days.

The Cowboys played seven games against the 12 playoff teams in 2013. They won one, a 17-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

But this is the dilemma when it comes to the Cowboys: The six losses were decided by one, one, two, three, nine and 32 points. That 32-pointer came against the New Orleans Saints. The nine-pointer to the San Diego Chargers could have been a lot closer if not for a Terrance Williams fumble at the goal line with 2:42 to play.

A successful season comes down to a handful of plays.

"I think that is the nature of the NFL," coach Jason Garrett said at the postgame podium after the 24-22 loss to the Eagles. "You look at the games around the league every week and you can always point to a couple plays in that ballgame that one team made and the other team didn't. Those tend to decide the game."

And tend to decide a season.

The Cowboys -- and the other non-playoff teams -- can live in a what-if world for the next eight months.

What if Ronald Leary doesn't have a false start in the red zone on the first drive of the second half at Kansas City? The Cowboys have to settle for a field goal and lose 17-16 to the Chiefs.

What if Tony Romo doesn't force a throw to Gavin Escobar against the Denver Broncos that is intercepted? The Broncos won on a last-second field goal, 51-48.

What if Romo connects on those deep balls to Dez Bryant against the Green Bay Packers or doesn't leave the slant to Miles Austin inside? The Packers won, 37-36.

What if Orton isn't late on a slant to Austin against the Eagles? Philadelphia won, 24-22.

What if Jeff Heath can break up that deep pass to Calvin Johnson in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions? The Cowboys lost on the final play, 31-30.

What if the defense could make more plays when it absolutely mattered? That's been a story for more than just 2013.

Sometimes what is lost in the what-if world are the wins that could have been losses. The Cowboys needed a fair share of luck to beat the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins and perhaps the New York Giants.

Just as you can say the Cowboys should have been 10-6, they could have been 6-10.

Garrett does not need a magic formula. It's quite simple. Just play better with better players.

"Typically [those games] have something to do with the ball, typically something to do with situational football, making stops when you need to have them, making big plays when you need to have them," Garrett said. "And again, when we won ballgames like that, which we have, you can point to those things and when we haven't gotten it done you can point to those same kinds of things. We have to somehow, someway as a football team do the things that help you win games at the end of games and we'll keep working on that as well."