|NFL / US Presswire|
|Miles Austin (left) couldn't come up with a big catch in Week 14, and now the Giants are in the Super Bowl.|
It was an innocent go route off the right hash. Tony Romo probably has thrown this specific kind of deep ball thousands of times in practice, and that's not counting the first thousand.
Miles Austin's job was to get clean off the line and shoot straight downfield. This was no complicated out-and-up -- no double-moves here. Beat the corner, and go. Call it a fly route. A streak. Or in Chargers head coach Norv Turner's tree, a "nine" route. Turner as in the former Cowboys offensive coordinator, who used to be current Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett's boss.
But maybe it should be called "The Play that Changed the Season."
Following a Jake Ballard touchdown, Big Blue still trailed Dallas by six with 2:25 left in the game. A completion was the only thing standing between the Cowboys improving to 8-5 and having a stranglehold on the NFC East that would put the Giants behind the playoff picture 8-ball. Remember, the wild-card openings were pretty much slipping under the horizon with Detroit and Atlanta both having superior won-loss records.
For Tom Coughlin's group, it was NFC East title or bust.
Romo took a seven-step drop out of the 'gun, one of his pitty-pat-tap-tap-tap seven-step dropbacks, when the ball gets out of his hand in about two seconds. Not enough time for the Giants' seven-man pass rush to get there. Just enough time for Austin to break past New York cornerback Aaron Ross and tip toe just inside the numbers on your radio dial, left to right.
With no safety help, it was a touchdown in waiting.
The protection was good. Romo looked off just enough to make sure he had his "Y" receiver open down the seam. It was there. Austin was there. And so was the ball â¦
The several million people watching NBC's coverage thought the Cowboys had it. Even the most casual of fan, with one eye on Facebook, the other on the game, saw the ball sailing with Austin running underneath. But something happened along the way. Austin didn't get there â¦ at least not in time. The ball fell harmlessly to the turf at the 48-yard line.
Did Romo overthrow his receiver and ultimately the division title, another late-game blunder in the rolodex of lost plays his detractors enjoy bringing up more than their past conquests at long-forgotten frat parties? Did Austin's hamstring, which flared up twice during the season and was an antagonist to the primary receiver in Garrett's attack, cause a 70 percent effort on a pass that needed a 100 percent rundown?
"That was probably a bit of that hamstring," former Cowboys Hall of Fame wideout Michael Irvin said. "You know, he was probably afraid to hit that last gear."
Romo had another explanation after the game.
"Miles said it got lost in the lights," he said. "He looked up and just saw the lights. Obviously you don't want those things to happen. Miles had a great game tonight, he did a great job for us."
After a Dallas punt, Eli Manning engineered a quick touchdown drive to put New York up by three. Romo answered, making two big throws to Austin, including a 23-yarder that put the Cowboys in position for the game-tying kick. One Jason Pierre-Paul blocked kick later, and the failed connection to Austin loomed very, very large.
The Giants rode the dramatic victory to a winner-take-all opportunity in Week 17 against those same Cowboys, which they won going away. As we all know, the NFC's hottest team then took three playoff games in a row to get to Indy.
But none of it would've happened without the big win in Big D, and going a step further, if Austin made that catch.
"(The Giants) were dead in the water," former Giants receiver Amani Toomer said. "They would've had no opportunity, if they would have had lost that game. We would have been talking in New York after the game about 'Who's going to be our next coach? Who's going to be our next running back?' That's the type of conversation that we would be having."
"For them to do what they did, after losing four games in a row, to go down to a rival team and come back with four minutes left, that's when I thought this team might have something. They might be special."
And what about a wide receiver supposedly losing a ball in the lights?
Said Toomer: "I always told young receivers, 'don't be looking at the lights!"
On Sunday, the Cowboys will be looking -- from the couch -- at their division rival in the Super Bowl.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.