DETROIT – The Dallas Cowboys managed to give away a game they never should have had a chance of winning.
The defense allowed 623 yards. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson outgained the Cowboys 329-268 yards. The defense allowed 24 fourth-quarter points. The offense held the ball for 24 minutes, 49 seconds.
And yet after a fourth-down stop with 1:24 to play, the Cowboys had the ball at the Lions 31 and held a 27-24 lead.
Then it unraveled for the Cowboys in the 31-30 loss.
Looking to run out the clock, the Cowboys ran the ball three straight times. On the third play, left tackle Tyron Smith was called for holding, stopping the clock with 1:07 to play. The Lions declined the penalty because they did not have any timeouts remaining and time was more important than yards.
Never has a Dan Bailey field goal -- that gave the Cowboys a 30-24 lead -- been so deflating.
“We had to kick the field goal but what you would like to do in that situation is let the rest of that time go down because they used their timeouts already,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We called that third down run and we get the clock down to about 30 (seconds) or even below that, but that increases your chances of winning when you take that time off the clock.”
Even though Bailey had made two 53-yard field goals earlier in the game, Garrett gave no consideration to just taking a knee on third down and letting the clock run down.
“If we don’t get called for the penalty, I think they probably have 20 seconds or so left on that final play,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “I don’t know you can coach thinking there is a possibility of that. It’s easy to say stuff now.”
But that’s what happens when the Cowboys lose a game the way they lost it. Every decision is magnified.
On the Lions' final drive, the Cowboys chose to sit back defensively and it cost them. But with undrafted rookies Jakar Hamilton and Jeff Heath playing safety and Johnson having a game that few in NFL history have ever had, could the Cowboys bring pressure on Matthew Stafford?
“We didn’t play as well as we should have,” Kiffin said. “It’s too bad because we can say this about this coverage or this and that, you can’t put it on the rush, you can’t put it on guys who haven’t played a whole lot. It’s just a tough situation.”
The key play on the drive, however, wasn’t a throw to Johnson. It was a 40-yarder along the sideline to Kris Durham that put the ball at the Dallas 23. Stafford put it between Orlando Scandrick and Hamilton as he rolled right and threw left .
“As we prepared we saw that and that’s why I tried to stay right there and just keep it on to that side,” said Hamilton, who was called up from the practice squad on Saturday. “He’s great at looking safeties off and throwing another way.”
Stafford hit Johnson with a perfect throw down the seam for 22 yards on the next play. Instead of spiking the ball, Stafford dove over the top for the touchdown. The play was reviewed because all scoring plays are reviewed, not that there was any real doubt he crossed the goal line.
There was a helpless feeling on the sideline as the Lions went down the field.
“It never feels good, but you always think you’re team is going to make a play,” Romo said. “It’s a tough one for all the guys right now.”