Having to wait out long, slow drives by Dallas, Eli Manning made his few chances count, throwing two touchdown passes to Amani Toomer and getting a 1-yard touchdown run from Brandon Jacobs for a 21-17 victory that put New York into the NFC championship game for the first time since the 2000 season.
Cornerback R.W. McQuarters intercepted a pass into the end zone with 9 seconds left, ending the Cowboys' final drive and marking Romo's second straight last-minute failure to cost Dallas a playoff game. His flubbed hold of a short field goal in Seattle ended the Cowboys' season last year.
"It hurts," said Romo, who was 18-of-36 for 201 yards with a touchdown. "I'm very disappointed and frustrated. ... It's tough right now."
Dallas' failure is huge, much bigger than last season's flop in Seattle when Romo botched the hold on a go-ahead field goal in the final minutes.
The Cowboys just wasted a 13-3 season, which matched the best in team history. They're the first No. 1 seed in the NFC to lose in this round since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990. They also became the seventh team to lose a playoff game against a team they'd beaten twice in the regular season -- joining Dallas' 1998 club.
Worst of all is the extension of all the skids: Romo now 0-2 in the playoffs, coach Wade Phillips 0-4 and the team 0-for-the-postseason since winning a wild-card game in 1996. The Cowboys have dropped five games since then.
The Cowboys might be headed into a stormy offseason. Team owner Jerry Jones said Thursday he would keep Phillips regardless of what happened in the playoffs. Now that will be tested, especially with highly valued assistant coaches Jason Garrett and Tony Sparano interviewing for jobs elsewhere.
Critics may point to Romo's trip to Mexico last weekend with his latest celebrity girlfriend as a disruption, but the problems went a lot deeper. There were all kinds of penalties that hurt Dallas drives and helped New York's, sloppy tackling on defense and special teams, dropped passes and wasted timeouts.
The Giants loved every bit of it.
New York gave up 45 and 31 points in the first two meetings, in part because the defensive front that produced an NFL-best 53 sacks went hard after Romo but missed and wound up allowing big plays. This time, the Giants were content to give up short yardage, and the Cowboys accepted the invitation.
Their first three scoring drives took nine, 20 and 14 plays, burning a total of 23:32 off the clock. Dallas converted eight straight third downs in that stretch, yet came away leading only 17-14 midway through the second quarter.
Toomer turned a short pass into a 52-yard touchdown on the game-opening drive, breaking free from two tackles and running away from everyone else. New York hardly had the ball the rest of the first half, but got it back at its 29 with 47 seconds left and Manning turned it into another touchdown to Toomer, a 4-yarder on a drive helped along by a 15-yard face mask penalty.
The Cowboys stuck with their formula at the start of the third quarter, taking more than half the time off the clock on another long march. Yet a drop in the end zone by tight end Anthony Fasano and a false start penalty on Flozell Adams stalled things. Dallas settled for a field goal and a 17-14 lead.
The Giants had to go only 37 yards on their go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Jacobs ran it in, then threw the ball into the play clock for emphasis.
The 91st meeting between these teams, and first in the playoffs, would only get more interesting from there. Not better, just interesting.
The teams traded scoring chances -- and missed opportunities.
Romo was sacked on the next drive and wound up leaving the field pointing at teammates and pouting after an incompletion. New York then started on its 3-yard line and saw Jacobs get stuffed on a third-and-1.
Dallas had great field position, but Romo wasted it with another sack. Then came a third-down conversion erased by an illegal formation penalty, an intentional grounding on a heave out of bounds and a third-and-20 pass to Terrell Owens that came up short.
Manning was only able to take the clock down to the 2-minute warning on the next drive, ending it with a sack of his own. Dallas had 1:50 seconds to go 48 yards, but Romo couldn't do it.
A Brett Favre-esque scrambling shovel pass to Jason Witten got the Cowboys to the 22 with 31 seconds left. Then came another false start, a short pass that forced Dallas to use its final timeout and a pair of poor throws -- a ball in the end zone that Patrick Crayton seemed to give up on before speeding up at the last second and the final play caught by McQuarters in front of Terry Glenn.
Marion Barber -- whose bruising running style earned the nickname "Marion the Barbarian" from Owens and helped him make the Pro Bowl despite never starting -- got his first start and responded with an early 36-yard run, then gained 67 during the 96-yard drive. He had three of the third-down conversions in the 20-play drive, including a 1-yard touchdown, and had 101 for the half. But he had only 28 yards after that.
Owens missed the final 1 1/2 games because of a high ankle sprain. His return was far less dramatic than the recovery he made for the Super Bowl a few years ago, but impressive nonetheless. He had four catches for 49 yards.
Terry Glenn, who missed the first 15 games following two knee surgeries, caught two passes for 30 yards, both on third downs.
The Giants only rushed for 90 yards, with Jacobs getting 54. Toomer had four catches for 80 yards.
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