Poise escapes Cowboys when it matters

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Throughout training camp, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett preached the importance of situational football.

He showed his team highlights of some of the most famous drives in NFL history, from John Elway's in the 1986 AFC Championship Game to Bart Starr's dive in the Ice Bowl to the New York Giants' win in Super Bowl XLII that ended the New England Patriots' run at a perfect season.

The point wasn't to show the game-clinching plays but the plays that led to the game-clinching play, like a fourth-down conversion, a second-effort block or even a simple blitz pickup.

Garrett wanted the players to see that every play mattered.

For more than three quarters Sunday against the New York Jets, Garrett's script was followed perfectly as the Cowboys held a 14-point lead -- but then it fell apart so badly that they could not get a rewrite before Nick Folk's game-winning field goal with 27 seconds left.

"We didn't handle the situation at the end of the ballgame well," Garrett said, his voice scratchy after the 27-24 defeat. "We did things that teams that know how to win games don't do."

Tony Romo fumbled at the Jets' 3 on third-and-goal with the Cowboys leading by a touchdown. While the Cowboys' defense forced a fumble, Dallas' next drive ended with Isaiah Trufant returning a blocked Mat McBriar punt for a game-tying score. On the next drive, the Cowboys could not convert a third-and-1.

Then came Darrelle Revis' crushing interception of an underthrown Romo pass to Dez Bryant, giving Folk, the ex-Cowboy, the chance for a game-winner.

"We made some critical mistakes at the end there that put them in a good situation," tight end Jason Witten said. "We felt like we had the momentum most of the game. We were playing well, moving it, stopping them on defense. It was a total team effort with guys fighting."

The Cowboys were left with so many what-ifs.

What if Witten hadn't been pushed out at the New York 3 by safety Jim Leonhard?

"I probably should've found a way to score there," Witten said of his 64-yard catch.

What if they hadn't had back-to-back penalties that turned a third-and-12 into a third-and-22? The Jets would not have been as compelled to come after McBriar for a punt block from the Jets 49 without the delay-of-game and false-start penalties.

What if Bart Scott hadn't filled the hole on Tashard Choice's third-and-1 carry that left the Cowboys short of a first down from the 41? If they'd converted there, the Cowboys could have continued their way down the field and probably put rookie kicker Dan Bailey in position to win the game with a field goal.

After Romo's interception, what if Alan Ball had been able to hold on to a Mark Sanchez pass to Derrick Mason for an interception with 37 seconds to play? If he had, then the game probably would have headed into overtime.

Garrett and Jerry Jones took hope even from the disappointment.

"This team showed me it will win a lot of ballgames this year," Jones said. "We will win a lot of ballgames because of the kind of effort we made."

While that sounds noble, it does not mean anything until the Cowboys actually win. As the players walked to the team bus for the short ride to the airport and the four-hour flight home, they felt deflated.

With a win, those aches and pains -- some major, some minor -- would not have felt so bad. Winning is the best medicine.

Garrett could have pointed out how the team overcame playing without its top three cornerbacks for stretches of the game, how a young offensive line handled a complex Jets' defense and how they took down one of the Super Bowl favorites from the AFC to start the season.

Instead, they fell apart when it mattered most.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.