EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys bookended their disappointing season with losses at the Meadowlands — defeats that kept them out of the playoffs.
Most agonizing was Sunday night's 31-14 flop against the New York Giants, who took the NFC East title and sent the Cowboys home without a postseason berth. Dallas (8-8) opened 2011 with a 27-24 loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
A win in either game could have made a world of difference.
"It's extremely painful and it's a damn shame," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We have a good team and I thought we would be going to the playoffs, but that didn't happen."
Because of Eli Manning and Victor Cruz, it didn't. Manning threw three touchdown passes, including a 74-yarder to Cruz, and the Giants (9-7) claimed the final spot in the NFL playoffs. New York took a 21-0 halftime lead and though Dallas got within seven points in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys really weren't a match for the Giants.
The Cowboys lost four of their final five games in their first full season under coach Jason Garrett.
"They got the lead and made it stand up," said Tony Romo, who posted decent numbers despite a right hand injury, but was sacked six times. "It's never a good feeling when you lose. We put so much time and effort into winning this and we came out and didn't play our best."
Not even close. And when they got within striking distance, the Cowboys fell apart on defense, particularly on a 44-yard jump ball pass to Cruz that turned things back in New York's favor.
That led to a field goal, and the Giants added another TD on a 4-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks after Manning hit him for 36 yards on the previous play.
"I mean it comes down to this game is about players," Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking said, "and this game is about players making plays, and we didn't do that. We were very efficient in that all year, but we obviously didn't do that tonight."
New York won three of its final four games for 65-year-old coach Tom Coughlin and earned a wild-card home game next Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (10-6).
"I knew we were going to fight and keep playing until the end, I feel good about the way we're handling the ups and downs, and it comes down to finishing," Manning said after throwing for 346 yards and no interceptions.
"We've had a lot of ups and down, but when our team needed it most we responded," said the up-and-coming Cruz, who has capped his team-record setting season with six catches for 178 yards. "We were able to keep levelheaded when we were on the four-game skid."
Dallas was its own worst enemy in a game with the season on the line. It missed tackles on all three of the Giants' three first-half touchdowns, failed to recover two fumbles within its grasp in the half and failed to convert on Romo's sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Giants 10 while trailing 21-7.
Romo moved the Cowboys in the second half but all he could generate were touchdown passes of 34 and 6 yards to Laurent Robinson, the last one getting Dallas within 21-14 with 10:15 to play.
Cruz, however, had the 44-yard third-down catch and another for 20 yards to set up Lawrence Tynes' 28-yard field goal and Manning iced the game with the TD pass to Nicks with 3:41 to play.
Manning finished 24 of 33 as the Giants beat the Cowboys for the second time in four games and ended a regular season marked by inconsistency on a high note. Cruz, who set a single-season record for yards receiving, did his touchdown salsa after the first score.
Romo was 29 of 37 for 289 yards but he was always under pressure, including twice being sacked by Osi Umenyiora, who returned to the lineup for the first time since spraining an ankle late last month. Dallas' final possession ended with Romo being sacked by Justin Tuck and losing a fumble.
"We needed this win," Umenyiora said. "This is the biggest win we've been a part of for a while."
The Giants haven't won a postseason game since beating the-then unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2008, and one thing seemingly apparent is this team is peaking.
Coming off a 29-14 win over the local rival Jets last week in what might have been the Giants' best game of the season, Coughlin's team put together another outstanding 30 minutes in jumping to the 21-0 halftime lead.
Cruz, who sparked the win over the Jets' with a team-record 99-yard touchdown, made another monster play on the Giants' second offensive series, turning a short pass into points.
Cruz caught a short square out, eluded a tackle by Terence Newman, turned the corner after getting a seal block from Nicks and outraced two defenders down the sideline in front of the Giants bench for a 7-0 lead.
Dallas went three-and-out but had a chance to get right back into the game when Will Blackmon muffed a punt at near his 30-yard line and Alan Ball failed to recover.
Ahmad Bradshaw made Dallas pay with his 5-yard TD run. Safety Abram Elam had a chance to tackle Bradshaw in the backfield and Bradshaw scooted into the end zone after he missed.
Manning had passes of 14 and 12 yards to rookie fullback Henry Hynoski in an 80-yard touchdown drive just before the half. Bradshaw, who had a 29-yard run early in the drive, broke a tackle by linebacker Bradie James in scoring on a 10-yard swing pass for a 21-0 lead.
The Giants had chances to put the game away in the third quarter. They moved to the Dallas 42 on the opening possession of the second half and elected to punt.
Romo then drove the Cowboys 94 yards with a no-huddle offense, hitting Robinson on a 34-yard go pattern down the right sideline on a play that cornerback Corey Webster was beaten.
An interception by safety Antrel Rolle gave New York the ball in Dallas territory but they failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 35 and the Cowboys came right back to cut the deficit to seven.