Cowboys lose Tony Romo and the season, too

ARLINGTON, Texas — Probably needing something close to a miracle to make the playoffs anyway, the Dallas Cowboys‘ season came to an end Thursday against the Carolina Panthers.

Not officially, of course, but the 33-14 loss leaves the Cowboys with a 3-8 record and probably without Tony Romo the rest of the way.

Romo suffered what was announced as a left clavicle injury after a 10-yard sack on the final play of the third quarter. Romo’s reaction to the hit was the same as he had Sept. 20, when he broke his collarbone after being hit by linebacker Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks.

Romo walked to the locker room holding his left arm by his side, went directly to the X-ray room and did not return.

The Cowboys were hoping Romo’s return from a seven-game absence would be the jolt they needed to start their playoff run. The win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday had many believing a run was possible.

But Romo was intercepted three times in the first half Thursday, and two were returned for touchdowns, by Kurt Coleman and Luke Kuechly. Kuechly got a second interception off Romo, and the Panthers turned it into a field goal to close the half.

If the interceptions weren’t bad enough, things got far worse at the end of the third quarter on Davis’ sack.

So bad that the season effectively ended with five games to play.

A second chance: With Romo hurt, the Cowboys will probably have to turn to Matt Cassel for the second time this season. Cassel, who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo on Sept. 23, lost all four of his starts after taking over for Brandon Weeden, who went 0-3 as Romo’s immediate successor. The Cowboys released Weeden on Nov. 17. Cassel completed 13 of 19 passes for 93 yards Thursday and threw a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley.

What were they thinking? In such a lopsided loss, it’s difficult to think one play would make much of a difference, but the Cowboys wasted a coach’s replay challenge on the final play of the first quarter. Greg Olsen made a 24-yard catch on third-and-10 while being blanketed by Brandon Carr. Using the extra commercial time in between quarters, Jason Garrett chose to throw the challenge flag when it was clear the catch was clean. The Cowboys are now 2-3 in challenges this year.

One reason to get excited: With the loss, the Cowboys remain in position for a top-five pick in the first round of next spring’s draft. And if you want fake optimism: The Panthers were 3-8-1 last year and still made the playoffs. The Cowboys are 3-8 with five games to go.

One reason to panic: The Cowboys haven’t won a game without Romo as a starter since Stephen McGee beat the Eagles 14-13 in Week 17 of the 2010 season. The Cowboys have lost nine straight games with Kyle Orton (0-1), Weeden (0-4) and Cassel (0-4) as their starter.

Bad call: It’s hard to find fault with the defense, considering the offense gave the Panthers 14 points and a short field for a field goal. The defense gave up just one touchdown. Any chance of getting back into the game, however, was thwarted by the Panthers’ 80-yard touchdown drive, which took 7 minutes, 29 seconds and put Carolina up 30-6 in the third quarter. On that drive, the defense allowed Carolina to convert on third-and-17. Instead of playing a prevent defense and just getting off the field, they blitzed and were beat.

No advantage: For the second time in the seven-year history of AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys will finish with a below .500 record at home. The loss to the Panthers was the Cowboys’ fifth straight in the $1.2 billion stadium, with their only win coming in the season opener against the New York Giants. The Cowboys have been better than .500 at home just three times (2009, 2011, 2013).

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