How'd he miss mentioning the refs?
By Gil LeBreton
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The falling leaves. The falling wide receivers.
The nip in the air. And -- a-hem -- the annual tightening of the throats.
Ho-ho-ho. It's another Cowboys December.
One post-Thanksgiving, last-minute escape in Detroit could have been written off as an aberration, an inevitable banana peel on the Cowboys' merry path to the NFC title game.
Add last weekend's Jessica Bowl and losing to Philadelphia, and, well, two Sundays could have been just a coincidence.
But after a third consecutive struggle Saturday night, this time a scant 20-13 win over a Carolina team that had "Beat me by 30" written all over it, a familiar trend has emerged.
It's December, and the Cowboys are showing their holiday warts again.
In the 10 seasons before this one, the Cowboys compiled a 16-33 record in games played after Thanksgiving. In the same span, the franchise went through four head coaches, 13 starting quarterbacks, and won no playoff games.
But this season's team rode into December on a full gallop. This season's team has Tony Romo, the alleged cure for any December cough. This team scores touchdowns. This team has 11 Pro Bowl players.
Let the Packers and the Giants wheeze into the NFL postseason. This Cowboys team, we were convinced, was immune to the December flu.
Did somebody say gesundheit?
On a night when the Cowboys ran 79 plays to the Panthers' 47, and when they gained 405 yards to Carolina's 216, Romo's team was still nervously watching the clock, squeezing down the final seconds, at this game's end.
Worse, there were injuries, including one that could hang a dark cloud over the weekends ahead. Wide receiver Terrell Owens left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury, and he later left the stadium using crutches.
Crutches. Three weeks ago, after pounding Green Bay, the Cowboys were strutting. Now they're on crutches, and a more appropriate metaphor could not be found.
Yes, Wade Phillips, the fifth head coach dating to 1997, has a 13-2 record and his team stands one victory away from clinching home-field advantage for the entire NFC playoffs.
But the Cowboys are looking like a team that peaked in November.
That team routed the Eagles in Philadelphia by 21. It beat the New York Giants twice. It knocked Brett Favre from the game and outscored the Packers by 10.
Now, the Cowboys can't seem to make anyone cry uncle.
The Owens injury won't help things. He was back in his groove, looking good, scoring his 15th touchdown of the season as the Panthers' defense watched in apparent awe.
Write this down: Good defense starts with your defenders lining up in the same zip code as the pass receivers.
Once Owens was escorted back to the locker room, however, the Carolina defense crowded the line of scrimmage and appeared to focus on tight end Jason Witten. Patrick Crayton and backups Sam Hurd and Miles Austin all caught passes, but drives kept stalling and third downs kept falling short.
What smelled like a looming rout became, instead, another anxious December night. The end result was that Phillips, even if he had wanted to, couldn't remove Romo from the game and let him rest his mending thumb. He couldn't rest starters -- period.
It's too late now.
The Cowboys' regular-season finale next weekend against the playoff-hungry Washington Redskins could end up being an uncomfortable postseason sendoff.
Yes, it's December, the Cowboys' coldest month.
Bad karma for the Cowboys abounded throughout Saturday night. Bank of America Stadium was the scene of the unofficial dethroning of the Cowboys' most recent run of Super Bowl teams. Terence Newman and Jay Ratliff also limped off the field Saturday with injuries, although they were able to return.
"It's not a big concern," linebacker Bradie James said of Owens' injury. "We've got one more game, then a bye, so that gives him three weeks to come back from his injury.
"I would rather rest him, anyway."
First things first, though. There's another December date in Washington next weekend, and the site of this season's NFC Championship Game could be on the line.
Two victories in three December weeks, all things considered, equal a fortunate consolation prize.
But there's bad karma in the air. December karma.
And you surely assumed that Tony Romo was the antidote for that old chill.