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Time could be running out for Cowboys

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PITTSBURGH – Before Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten could escape to the comfort of some elongated cliché response, he summed up the state of the Cowboys with terrific brevity.

"We've been talking about that around here for awhile," Witten said after being asked about how the star-studded Dallas offense should have been better in the crucial moments of a 20-13 loss Sunday against Pittsburgh.

In fairness, Dallas was facing the Steelers, who have the best overall defense in the NFL. Pittsburgh, which is statistically and frighteningly channeling its great defenses of the 1970s, has a way of making good look bad. Very bad.

Furthermore, the Cowboys were playing without running back Marion Barber. While they survived adequately with Tashard Choice in Barber's place, the bigger problem was the assembled talent around him.

You can put it on Witten, whose wrong route resulted in quarterback Tony Romo's game-deciding interception. Or Terrell Owens, who was held to three catches for 32 yards. Or even wide receiver Roy Williams, who hasn't had much of an impact since being acquired during the midseason.

Name your man, including Romo. When the Cowboys needed critical plays from their high-paid offense, the high-paid guys didn't show. Five turnovers by the Cowboys left players, coaches and even owner Jerry Jones talking about what could have been.

"Really, with the way our defense played and how our offense hung in there despite the conditions and how good that Steelers defense is, there's nothing to be ashamed of," Jones said as he clutched a DVD of the game he planned to watch on his flight from Pittsburgh. "If we can play like that in some games, we're going to do fine and win some important road games."

That's a fair point, but time is running out. At 8-5, Dallas needs to win now or risking letting another season go by without a playoff win. The team hasn't won in the postseason since 1996, the days when Jimmy Johnson's signature "How 'Bout Them Cowboys!" was still echoing across Dallas and the players he picked were still roaming the field.

Over the dozen years since, Jones has tinkered and toyed and revised his approach until putting together this fearsome group. Last season, Dallas went 13-3 before getting tripped by the Giants in the playoffs.

This season, as they get set to host the NFC East champion Giants next week (followed by games against Baltimore and Philadelphia), they are anything but a lock to make the postseason. The Cowboys are in a jumble with Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington for the final playoff spot. Carolina or Tampa Bay (whichever loses Monday night) will be leading the way for the first wild-card slot.

However, this was not the expectation in Dallas before this season.

"I've faced this situation a hundred times, being at the losing end of a frustrating game where you had a chance to win at the end and let it slip away," said Williams, who was acquired in a blockbuster, trade-deadline deal from Detroit in October. "I just didn't expect that to happen here."

From the perspective of Jones and the crew, it shouldn't be happening.

The Cowboys put themselves in precarious situations all day long, starting with an interception on their third play from scrimmage. By halftime, they had turned the ball over four times, but Pittsburgh failed to capitalize … until Dallas' pivotal miscommunication in the fourth quarter.

Somehow, Romo and Witten were on a different page in crunch time, the result being a 25-yard interception return for a score by Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend with 1:40 remaining. That allowed Dallas to squander a 13-3 lead with less than eight minutes remaining.

Just as troubling is that Dallas' other three drives in the fourth quarter gained a total of 29 yards. That included a drive that Dallas started at its own 40-yard line with 7:15 remaining while holding a 13-6 lead. Dallas had a great chance to eat up some clock and get a score to put pressure on the Steelers.

Instead, Pittsburgh forced Dallas to go three-and-out as the Steelers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter.

The collapse spoiled the Cowboys' incredible defensive effort. The Pittsburgh running game produced only 70 yards and was stuffed cold at the Dallas 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was constantly harassed, completing only six of 18 passes for 63 yards in the first half and then getting sacked four times in the second half.

"Our defense played their butts off and we didn't do anything to help them," said Owens, who caught Dallas' lone touchdown in the third quarter after a nice bit of improvisation by Romo.

Unfortunately, that bit of improv was all there was for the Cowboys, a damning indictment. Unlike the teams the Cowboys are fighting for the postseason, none have Dallas' collection of wide receivers, quarterback and tight end. Throw in a healthy Barber and this should be a group that harkens the days of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.

It shouldn't be a team that's talking about "accountability" and doing a better job of executing. Witten shouldn't have to be explaining how he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"That play is all on me," Witten said, explaining the Townsend interception.

While taking the blame is being a good teammate, a great teammate would be being in the right place to make the important catch.

"Really, I was thinking this was going to be a great win," Jones said.

Unfortunately, Dallas has been talking about great wins for awhile. Now it needs to get some.