After throwing three interceptions in his latest make-or-break defeat, Tony Romo shuffled across a silent locker room, grimacing and looking at the floor. He dressed creakily. Merely putting on his dark socks appeared to be an ordeal.
Now comes a tougher task for the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback: processing his performance in a season-ending 28-18 loss to the Washington Redskins on Sunday night with the NFC East title on the line.
"I feel as though I let our team down," Romo said at his postgame news conference, his words deliberate, his stare blank. "Your legacy will be written when you're done playing the game," said Romo, whose three interceptions matched his total from the previous eight games combined.
"It's disappointing not being able to get over that hump," he added, "but I also know that football is the ultimate team sport and I need to continue to improve, and our football team does, to get there."
Needing a victory over the rival Redskins (10-6) to reach the playoffs, the Cowboys (8-8) finished at .500 for the second season in a row. They'll miss the postseason for the third consecutive year.
And this is the third time in the past five years that Dallas lost its regular-season finale when a win would have allowed it to keep playing.
"We have a big challenge ahead of us. (The Redskins) are, of course, in the tournament, and we have to sit at home and think about how to get in the tournament. This is very disappointing. We have players that have fought hard all year, but it did not end up the way we wanted," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "And one of my jobs is to evaluate and analyze and make decisions in the offseason that can help us be in better shape."
He can look at Washington to see how quickly things can change. Rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris needed only four months to give the Redskins their first division title since 1999.
Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner drafted second overall, ran for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Morris, the sixth-rounder from Florida Atlantic, ran for 200 yards and three TDs. He set the franchise single-season rushing record for the Redskins, who turned around the season behind their quarterback's talent and leadership to win seven straight games, becoming the first NFL team to make the playoffs after starting 3-6 since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars.
After the final whistle, team captain Griffin walked off the field with a big smile, holding up his left index finger in a No. 1 gesture. Washington, which set a franchise record with only 14 turnovers this season (zero on Sunday), will host Seattle next Sunday.
Romo, meanwhile, was intercepted on each of Dallas' first two possessions. His last turnover was the one that bothered him the most: A poor throw was picked off by Rob Jackson when the Cowboys had a chance to drive for a winning score in the final minutes. "That'll eat at me for weeks now," Romo said.
He almost became the first Dallas quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, but his career is instead further tainted by late-season disappointments. He also had Week 17 losses to the Philadelphia Eagles (44-6) in 2008 and the New York Giants (31-14) last year, along with a 1-3 record in playoff games (who can forget the botched hold?).
"There's been a couple of these games towards the end of the year that are critical games and we haven't gotten it done as a football team -- and Tony's certainly a part of that, but everybody's a part of that," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
On Sunday, Morris' 32-yard scamper gave the Redskins a 21-10 cushion with 10½ minutes left. Trying to play catch-up, Dallas pulled within three on a 10-yard TD pass to Kevin Ogletree and a 2-point conversion with 5:50 to play. But Morris' third touchdown, a 1-yard run with 1:09 left, sealed the outcome.
It didn't help matters for Dallas that receivers Dez Bryant (back) and Miles Austin (left ankle) got injured. Bryant, who Garrett said "really couldn't even walk," left after four catches for 71 yards.
"Missing those two guys is crucial," said Ogletree, who got a talking-to from Romo after the QB's first interception.
In the end, Dallas also was hurt by missing five injured starters on a defense that simply could not stop Morris. But what will be remembered mostly will be the play of Romo, who completed 20 of 31 passes for 218 yards, often facing pressure from what Garrett described as the way the Redskins "just kind of rolodexed those blitzes through."
"We know Romo doesn't like pressure in his face, so that was our big thing," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "We had to get pressure up the middle. Not so much on the outside; keep him in the pocket. That's what we were able to do."
Notes: Cowboys KR-WR Dwayne Harris was on crutches after the game. Garrett said he had a lower leg injury. ... Dallas is 128-128 in regular-season games since the start of the 1997 season.
Copyright The Associated Press