IRVING, Texas -- With a late lead in Pittsburgh, the Dallas Cowboys had everything they wanted right in front of them:
A shove in the right direction to start a tough final month. A boost in the wild-card race. A chance to douse all the talk about their tendency to fall apart after Thanksgiving.
Then they blew it. A 13-6 advantage after 57 minutes became a 20-13 loss to the Steelers that was still tough to swallow Monday.
"The way that game ended, it's almost like a blur," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "What happened?"
The specifics include the defense giving up their first touchdown of the game, then Tony Romo throwing an interception that was returned for another touchdown only 24 seconds later. Dallas got the ball back, but Romo couldn't do anything, throwing an incompletion on fourth down.
Every loss has a play here or there that could've produced a different result. The bigger lament for the Cowboys coming out of this game is all the other ramifications.
" Instead of being 9-4 and atop the NFC wild-card chase, Dallas is 8-5 and much more vulnerable to miss the playoffs.
" That playoff outlook is further dimmed by a closing stretch against competition that keeps improving: the Giants, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Put another way, that's a team trying to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the NFC; a team on a 7-1 roll; and a team that's revived its playoff hopes with solid wins the last two weeks after seemingly being out of it.
" By starting December with a loss, the Cowboys are forced to keep facing their ugly history of wearing out at season's end. Their record is now 18-32 in regular-season games played in December or January since their last playoff victory back in 1996. Coach Wade Phillips downplays that as "a baseball stat," arguing that circumstances are different every season. But to players it's akin to the burden carried by the Chicago Cubs.
"Nobody wants to hear about the terrible Decembers we keep having, year in and year out," cornerback Terence Newman said. "So we definitely have something to prove."
The good news for the Cowboys is that the playoff picture actually cleared up a bit Sunday thanks to losses by Washington and Atlanta. Dallas now holds the No. 2 wild-card spot because of a tiebreaker over the Falcons, so if the Cowboys can win out, it is theirs to keep.
Thus, all they have to do is finish strong -- a theme the team has rallied around since training camp.
"You say that's what you want to do, you preach that's what you're going to try to get done, well, here's the opportunity," Phillips said. "At least we have that opportunity."
Phillips spent the early minutes of his Monday news conference denying that the team ever questioned the toughness of running back Marion Barber, which became an issue only because owner Jerry Jones brought it up after the game Sunday.
Asked about the fact Barber didn't make the trip to Pittsburgh because of a dislocated pinkie toe on his right foot, Jones said "he surprised me that he's not here playing."
"He can play with that injured toe," Jones said. "He can play with the soreness, combination of those things. I see nothing that would have led us to believe that he couldn't."
Said Phillips on Monday: "I don't want to speak for Jerry, but I don't think you question his toughness. He's one of the toughest guys we have."
Phillips said Barber was slowed more by a calf injury caused by Barber running differently to compensate for the toe problem. Jones, however, had told reporters the calf was not an issue.
Phillips also said the team determined Barber couldn't play, as opposed to Barber saying he couldn't.
"Our trainers said he wasn't going to be able to play. They said it would be better for him to stay here and get treatment than fly there and move around, so that's why we kept him here," Phillips said.
Rookie Tashard Choice filled in for Barber and ran for 88 yards, the most against Pittsburgh all season. He had another 78 yards receiving; all told, he accounted for 166 of Dallas' 289 yards. Phillips said Choice has earned more playing time once Barber returns, although Barber could be back Sunday night against the Giants.
"He's going to try and practice this week," Phillips said. "I know he's feeling better. I think he will be out there or try to be out there certainly. ... He can play without practicing, and he may have to do that this week."
Receiver Roy Williams, linebacker Bradie James, safety Keith Davis, cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and offensive lineman Montrae Holland were among those hobbling. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware played with a brace on his knee because of an injury the previous week. Phillips said Holland's sprained ankle was the biggest concern.
"I think we've got enough guys healthy that we can make our run here," Phillips said.