Injured Boys can't pull away in division
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Dallas Cowboys had a relatively clean bill of health, a winning streak and sole possession of first place in the NFC East when they arrived in Green Bay.
When they limped out of Lambeau Field, well, at least they still sat atop the division standings.
The four-game winning streak ended with a sloppy performance in Sunday afternoon's 17-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers. In the grand scheme of things, that's not a catastrophe.
As owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, he would have gladly taken a split of road games the last two weeks if asked before the Cowboys boarded the plane to Philadelphia. And if the Cowboys had to win only one of those two games, they picked the right one. The victory over the Philadelphia Eagles gave the Cowboys a one-game lead in the division, an advantage that stayed intact since the Eagles lost Sunday to the San Diego Chargers.
But the Cowboys blew an opportunity to create significant separation in the NFC East race with the Eagles losing and the preseason division favorite New York Giants on a bye, licking the wounds from their four-game losing streak.
"If we could get this win and then go back home for two, then we really had a chance to start feeling good about things," Jones said. "But it doesn't surprise us. This is the NFL. You're not supposed to feel that good about things."
That leads us to the Cowboys' injury situation. They were remarkably healthy by NFL midseason standards. Kick returner Allen Rossum, whose roster spot is in jeopardy once his sore hamstring heals, was the only player with an injury serious enough to make him miss the Packers game. No other Cowboys player was even listed as questionable.
The Cowboys suffered a major blow when right tackle Marc Colombo, a brawler whose toughness sets the tone for the offensive line, broke his left fibula during the first quarter. Colombo is out for the season, disrupting the continuity of an offensive line whose members hadn't missed any games because of injuries all season.
The Cowboys experienced the kind of negative effect one offensive lineman's absence can have last season. Left guard Kyle Kosier, the team's least accomplished starting linemen, missed the rest of the season after aggravating a stress fracture in his foot during the Cowboys' September trip to Lambeau. Protecting Romo was a major problem the rest of the season, particularly during Dallas' December downfall.
With Doug Free taking over for Colombo, the Cowboys struggled to protect Romo against the Packers' 3-4 defense. Green Bay sacked Romo five times and hit him several others, preventing the Cowboys' offense from getting in any sort of rhythm until garbage time.
"There aren't any excuses," right guard Leonard Davis said. "We just can't sit there and whine about it."
The Cowboys come home with their momentum gone and two starters missing, with free safety Ken Hamlin likely to sit out at least the next two games after suffering a high ankle sprain in the second half.
Linebacker Keith Brooking referred to this loss as a "minor hiccup," saying that's the approach the Cowboys needed to take. He pointed out that they'd rebounded from both of their previous losses this season by winning the next week.
"They'll pop right back up from this," Jones said. "There's no doubt in my mind about it."
It'll be a much tougher task without Colombo, who had started every game since the 2006 opener. The Cowboys can recover from a November loss. It remains to be seen whether they can fill the hole at right tackle.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.