FOXBORO, Mass. — There were two quarterbacks on the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
One was trusted by his coaching staff to take risks and make plays, and he rewarded his team by coming through and winning the game in crunch time. His name is Tom Brady.
The other guy was Tony Romo.
The Cowboys' quarterback showed all the confidence of a man who said earlier this week that his team will win the Super Bowl "at some point." His head coach, Jason Garrett, appeared to trust him as much as he would a signal-caller who's thrown away surefire wins against the Jets and Lions already this season. Garrett and the Cowboys seemed intent on not letting Romo lose another game.
And of course, that plan prevented the Cowboys from winning.
"These games come down to a couple of plays here and there sometimes," a despondent Romo said after the 20-16 Dallas loss. "It just sucks when you're on the other end of it."
In the next few days, those plays that decided the game will likely be considered a third-and-goal shovel pass that lost yardage and a draw play on third-and-18, in a situation where a first down would have essentially sealed a win. Both plays were highlighted because of the high stakes, but the first indication that the Cowboys didn't want to risk a turnover came in Dallas' third possession of the game.
After the first drive ended in an a Romo interception and the second ended with a punt following a sack of Romo, the Cowboys had a third-and-14 from the Patriots' 27-yard line. Facing the league's weakest pass defense, in a situation where just about every team would throw the ball, Garrett called for a draw to Tashard Choice. He lost three yards, and the Cowboys punted the ball away.
It was an early indication of things to come. The Cowboys were driving with less than six minutes to go in the game with the chance to take a lead. Jump ball extraordinaire Dez Bryant was in man coverage on the outside. Jason Witten, always a dangerous red-zone threat and already with a touchdown in the game, was at tight end. The Cowboys had a chance to take a seven-point lead and guarantee at the very worst a trip to overtime, but Romo never once threw the ball into the end zone.
He threw 5 yards to Martellus Bennet before an incompletion to Choice. On third down, Romo ran to his right before shoveling a short pass to Choice, who was swarmed by a group of Patriots and lost three yards.
Despite the groans from the state of Texas that could be heard around the country, Romo didn't express disagreement with the play call.
"I was comfortable with the call. You can always second-guess everything you do when you lose," Romo muttered while trailing off a bit before adding, "I was fine."
Witten, who was targeted just four times all game and caught all four passes, said he wasn't mad at the play call.
"I was upset that we didn't score seven, but I still had confidence in our defense," Witten said.
Garrett said that the main goal was just to take the lead, even if only by a field goal, and he explained how he thought the play would catch the Patriots off guard.
"We thought it was a good call," said Garrett. "We thought it was a high-percentage call based on what they might play. It's not something that we've done a whole lot of, so maybe we could sneak in there and having said that, it can still give us a scoring opportunity if it doesn't work."
It didn't work, and they got their scoring opportunity, but the field goal proved to be futile.
Despite Garrett and Romo doing their best to put the play-calling in a positive light, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones chimed in with a pointed comment after the loss.
"We rolled the dice at the end and went conservative rather than try to get some points," Jones said. "And it bit us."
Making the issue even more troubling for Dallas was that the Cowboys' defense was nothing short of outstanding for most of the game. Rob Ryan's crew became the first to keep the Patriots from scoring 30 points since … Rob Ryan's crew in Cleveland accomplished that last year. Brady was just 19-for-32 (59 percent) for 211 yards, one touchdown and one interception before going 8-for-9 for 78 yards and the game-winning score in the game's final minutes.
That Brady led the Patriots to the win, and that he took the risk of throwing for a touchdown rather than settling for a game-tying field goal, worked to further put Dallas' conservative calls in the spotlight.
The other call that raised eyebrows came with just under three minutes left in the game with the Cowboys leading by a field goal. A third-and-13 turned into a third-and-18, thanks to a false start penalty. Rather than try to hit Miles Austin, who had four catches for 56 yards in the second half to that point, to get a first down that would have allowed the Cowboys to run out the clock, Dallas went with a draw to Choice. He gained eight yards, and the Patriots happily called timeout and watched Dallas punt.
While the risk of stopping the clock with an incompletion or throwing an interception that would set the opponent up in field-goal range makes sense, Romo expressed some disappointment that he didn't get a chance to make a play.
"You always want to [get that chance] as a quarterback," he said. "As a competitor and as a guy, you always want to be in a situation to move the chains. At the time of the game, though, I can understand definitely why we didn't [pass]."
Put it all together, and the end result is a Cowboys team that, despite four New England turnovers and countless opportunities to take advantage, came up just short of beating the Patriots.
As you'd expect, Garrett and Romo said all the right things, but you can say all you want; your play-calling and decision-making in the game speaks much louder.
The Dallas Cowboys don't trust Romo, and in Big D, that's a big, big problem.