PHILADELPHIA -- The touchdown that was mere inches from breaking the plane, the two-point try that was out of bounds by a step, the final, desperate throw that was just a few yards shy of glory.
It has been the story of the Dallas Cowboys for many of the 28 years since they last won the Super Bowl and it was their story still on Sunday. They are a very good team. They have a special quarterback. They can limit explosive offenses. They put on a great show. They are almost there.
And yet, in the only way that ultimately matters, especially in Dallas, they are still nowhere.
The Cowboys lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-23, in what was probably the best game of the season so far.
They are 5-3 and 2.5 games behind in the NFC East. And they are in the strange netherworld that is also occupied by the Miami Dolphins. They have looked outstanding in many of their games. But they have yet to beat a team that has a winning record and, in the Cowboys' case, they have now lost to the two teams that occupy space in the NFC's elite, the San Francisco 49ers and the Eagles.
The Niners, before they began their own swoon, walloped the Cowboys. But Sunday's game against the Eagles was both more encouraging and more gut-wrenching. If any of three plays had gone differently -- including two that were reversed on replay -- the Cowboys might very well have won; that is how close they were. But that is exactly the point. The Cowboys fell achingly short, over and over and over again.
"It's a game of inches and we came up an inch or two short on a couple of plays," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's the ebb and flow of a football game."
The Cowboys trailed by 11 as the fourth quarter started after the Eagles held the Cowboys scoreless in the third quarter. But a long drive -- which included Dak Prescott barely getting a yard on fourth-and-1 -- brought the Cowboys to the Eagles' 7-yard line. And there they stalled, until they faced another fourth-and-1, this time from the 1-yard line.
Prescott threw a low liner to the left, where tight end Luke Schoonmaker dove for the catch. The call was a touchdown. But on the replay -- which was shown to the roaring crowd -- it was clear that while Schoonmaker's body was over the goal line, the ball did not break the plane before his knees were brought down by Reed Blankenship. The ruling was reversed. No touchdown.
On the Cowboys' next drive, the Cowboys did score a touchdown, a 7-yard pass from Prescott to receiver Jalen Tolbert. Because they trailed by five, the Cowboys attempted a two-point conversion. Prescott kept it himself and ran around the right end. As he ran along the sideline, he held the ball out toward the pylon. Again, the initial ruling was a conversion. And again, the replay -- again played for the crowd -- was clear. Prescott, who had played brilliantly in extending plays and throwing on scrambles, had just barely stepped out of bounds before the ball hit the pylon, meaning the Cowboys would need to score a touchdown.
What was Prescott thinking when he saw that second replay?
"Damn," he said. "Game of inches. First one to Schoon. ... It was crazy his knee was down a little early. Tough. On mine, I'm just mad at myself for not tagging the pylon with two hands."
There was one more chance, it seemed, but it ended when Prescott was sacked twice and threw incomplete on a fourth-and-8 try. And then, incredibly, the Eagles were stuffed and were forced to punt again with 59 seconds remaining.
Even in a game between two playoff-caliber teams, there are times when it seems that the outcome will be decided by which team's meltdown is less ruinous. The Eagles' meltdown was epic. The Cowboys started on their own 14-yard line and got to the Eagles' 6-yard line in the blink of an eye, with a series of defensive penalties escorting Dallas to its final gasp.
"We're going to win," Prescott said he was thinking. "At no point in my mind during that game did I think any different."
And then the Cowboys' meltdown started. A false start pushed them back 5 yards to the 11. Another sack pushed them back 11 yards more. From the 22 they had a play they were confident in, one that had the receivers landing about 1 yard into the end zone.
The only problem is there was one more delay of game to come. So with 5 seconds left, the Cowboys used that play from the Eagles' 27-yard line. It went for just 23, into the arms of CeeDee Lamb, who was pushed backward.
In the tiny visitors' locker room, where the Cowboys had installed their own area rug with a star at the front door, the Cowboys seemed somewhat encouraged rather than forlorn. They had fallen short, yes, but if this was supposed to be a litmus test, well, the results weren't that bad.
"I don't think we failed," linebacker Micah Parsons said.
"I feel like we've got even more confidence now," he added. "Everybody had us out. I'm not going to spit more fuel on the fire. We'll see them again in four weeks."
And maybe after that, too. The Cowboys are certainly good enough to be a playoff team, especially in the NFC, and it is easy to see them winning a game or two when the tournament starts. But that is never the question about the Cowboys. They are forever close. Can they close the gap? Can they make up those last few inches?
"We need to learn from these mistakes," McCarthy said. "You get into these types of games, even more if you get into the playoffs, you have to make one more play than the other team."
They didn't make them Sunday, but McCarthy said he felt the Cowboys turned a corner last week, when they throttled the Rams. He thought the team hit their stride. He could feel the Cowboys were starting to get momentum.
That doesn't necessarily stall because of this loss. The Cowboys have a string of very winnable games coming up, starting with the New York Giants next week.
Prescott noted that there are no moral victories but that a lot of good came from this game. He feels freedom in the offense and is on the same page with McCarthy. That sounds like a pretty good moral victory, actually. Those aren't enough for the Cowboys, who will spend the rest of the season trying to prove they are capable of getting a real one. The big one.
"We got close. We got close," Prescott said. "We're doing things the right way. An inch here, an inch there make the difference and we'll find a way to gain that."