"I thought we had a chance, if we do something in the second half, to win the game," coach Bill Parcells said afterward. "We didn't do anything except self-destruct."
Defining the moment when opportunity faded into what eventually became a 36-10 Cowboys loss is easy.
Quarterback Quincy Carter knew before it happened. He knew the second the pass left his hand that he wanted to reel it back. But he could only watch helplessly as Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown stepped in front of his wobbly, impulsive and ill-advised pass less than two minutes into the second half.
"I didn't have anybody. I should have thrown the ball away," Carter said. "From there, it went downhill. I can tell you that."
If Carter had heaved the ball into the stands, which Parcells had even had him practice in training camp, the Cowboys simply punt and the 10-10 battle for field position continues.
He didn't. The Cowboys' defense jogged onto the field to try to stop the Eagles from chewing through the 27 yards to a go-ahead score.
They did. The Eagles were looking at a 45-yard field goal into the wind after Donovan McNabb threw back-to-back-to-back incompletions, the final one sailing out of bounds while Cowboys cornerback Mario Edwards and Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston jostled for position below.
"Mario was in good position. He had his head turned. He was looking at the ball," safety Roy Williams said. "The next thing I know, three seconds later, you see a flag."
The yellow proof was lying on the field, and no amount of complaining was going to get it up. Philly got a fresh set of downs and a short field.
Later, after the Eagles scored and everything snowballed and the Cowboys folded, Parcells and Edwards and the rest of the locker room decried the call as "questionable."
"But," linebacker Dexter Coakley said, "you don't lose the game on one call or one play or one mistake."
Where games are won or lost is how a team responds when things go awry. The answer, for the Cowboys, is still not well.
What happened Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field wasn't so much a team being undone by an interception or a lousy call. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre threw an interception and the Packers still won. There were probably at least a half-dozen blown calls all over the NFL on Sunday that teams had to overcome.
What proved to be the undoing of the Cowboys against the Eagles was that while they took the punch, they never hit back.
"We never responded," tight end Dan Campbell said. "That's what happens when you let it get out of control, and that's what we did."
It is easy to forget in hindsight, but the Cowboys were only trailing 17-10 after the interception, interference call and subsequent touchdown. They did not need to answer immediately with a touchdown as much as they needed to string together a couple of first downs and get the field-position battle back to even.
The Cowboys moved the chains once, but the drive stalled after tight end Jason Witten was flagged for a false start. Their next possession was a three-and-out. Both drives were punctuated by short punts by Toby Gowin.
As a result, by the time the Cowboys got the ball a third time still trailing 17-10, they were at their own 15-yard line. Then they were called for holding. Then they gave up a sack. Then Matt Lehr rifled the ball past Carter for a safety, and the rout was on. Players seemed to be counting down the seconds until they could run back up the tunnel.
"I am just about as upset at the team as I have been," Parcells said. "I thought if we could play the same way in the second half, we would have a good chance to win the game. But we self-destructed in the third quarter."
So Close...But So Far Away
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