Cowboys play blame game on pivotal pick

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When it ended in the frozen North Side darkness, the visiting locker room was littered with more sorry Cowboys than a spaghetti western.

Offensive personnel virtually lined up to take the blame for the play that had just gotten Dallas beat --- Deshea Townsend's electrifying pick sixer with but 100 seconds left on the game clock --- and the mea culpas extended from one end of the doomed formation to the other.

From tight end Jason Witten to quarterback Tony Romo to wideout Terrell Owens, the Cowboys nearly fell over each other screaming, "My bad; my bad!"

Well all right, maybe not Owens.

"I had pretty much 1-on-1 coverage," said T.O. about Romo's third interception, the late, lethal one. "The guy was playing 10-12 yards off me. I look around, come out of my break, and I see (Townsend) intercepting the ball and going the other way."

Veteran T.O. translaters nearly sighed with relief at this, as the game's premier irritant didn't explain this debilitating Dallas defeat with a direct, "They should have thrown it to me!"

But then he did.

"There was an opportunity there," Owens said of the fateful second-and-8 from the Dallas 17. "I was 1-on-1, and in that situation they were 12-13 yards off me (do I hear 15-18?). So you know, you expect things to happen, but (Romo) made the assessment."

As it happened, both Romo and Witten assessed that they were looking at Dick LeBeau's Cover 2 defense, when in fact LeBeau had disguised something else -- Witten called it Single High -- and the result was a Romo overthrow and the interception Townsend snared at the 25, turning it into a diving, game-winning touchdown at the left pylon not three seconds later.

"I threw it where he wasn't; it's on me," said Romo, who had his top-shelf passer rating (103.2) modified to 44.9 by 60 minutes of Steelers defense. "As a quarterback, you can't turn the ball over that many times and expect to win, especially in this kind of environment against that kind of defense."

Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor caught Romo passes in the first half, when the Steelers offense somehow managed to turn four Dallas turnovers into exactly three points, just enough for a ratty halftime tie.

Undeterred, Dallas put together its only touchdown drive on the first opportunity after intermission, the first time all year the Steelers have allowed a touchdown on the first drive after intermission. Owens got the touchdown, his 108th since 2002 (the best such figure in the NFL), when he found some space amid broken patterns after an extended Romo scramble. When rookie Tashard Choice took a swing pass 50 yards down the Pittsburgh sideline on the next Dallas series, the Cowboys managed to pump the lead to 13-3 with 3:32 left in the third period.

"We didn't play perfect, but I thought we played well," said Dallas boss Wade (Son of Bum) Phillips. "We stopped them on four down on the goal line. We had a couple of turnovers (2) ourselves. We stopped a lot of third downs (Pittsburgh was 3-for-16). We had a lot of sacks (5). I thought we played pretty well, just not well enough to win."

They appeared to have enough to stretch their record to 9-4 even when Jeff Reed rattled a 41-yard field goal off the right upright with 7:15 left, and even after Heath Miller got the Steelers' only offensive touchdown with 2:27 to play to tie it, Dallas had all three timeouts remaining and 1:35 to push into field goal range.

But on second-and-eight, Witten fled into the Steelers secondary and made the first left rather than adjust through a seam.

"I didn't make the play," said Dallas' decorated tight end. "I've been six years at this. We'd run that route four times earlier in the game. I've caught 200 of those. They were in Cover 2, and they jumped into a Single High. I was supposed to go to the middle seam there.

"I wish I could take it back more than anything in the world. It wasn't on Tony."

Polamalu said he wasn't sure what Witten read at the crucial moment, but he was sure of this:

"Against Cover 2," Polamalu said, "that play wins. Coach LeBeau changed it at the last minute."

LeBeau might have changed a lot more than that.

"We'll see how it plays out," Romo said. "If we don't make the playoffs then obviously it's going to be very damaging. If we do, then it won't have meant anything."

So it's not so much a matter of who's sorry now, but who's sorry then.

Probably won't be T.O.

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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