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LANDOVER, Maryland (Reuters) - A heartbreaking loss ended another Dallas Cowboys' season on Sunday, the third year in a row the storied franchise has missed the playoffs.
"We have a big challenge ahead of us," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after Dallas lost to the Washington Redskins 28-18 and squandered their chance to win the NFC East.
"One of my jobs is to basically evaluate, analyze and make decisions in the off season, and help us be in better shape going into playoffs."
The Cowboys' 2012 campaign finished with two consecutive losses after a crucial interception thrown by quarterback Tony Romo after Dallas had rallied in the fourth quarter.
"It just hurts a lot right now to even think about and talk about," Romo said. For a second straight year the Cowboys lost a last-ditch, win-or-go-home final game of the regular season.
The Cowboys shook off two early interceptions and gained a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, helped by a missed 37-yard field goal attempt by Washington's Kai Forbath.
But Dallas, a team that has been estimated as the most valuable sports franchise in the United States, was unable to win as the Redskins successfully kept Romo off-balance.
"We knew Romo doesn't like pressure in his face, so that was our big thing. We had to get pressure up the middle and not so much outside, to be able to keep him in the pocket," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said of the plan to neutralize Romo.
Romo completed 20 of 37 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns but was picked off three times.
"Tony's a heck of a football player and you have to keep him off balance. We feel very fortunate to have kept him a little off balance, it made the difference between winning and losing," said Washington coach Mike Shanahan.
The Redskins seemed to be cruising early in the fourth quarter.
But a Romo touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Ogletree with about six minutes to go and a two-point conversion pulled the visitors within three points, and the Cowboys seemed primed for their quarterback to mount one of his trademark late drives.
But a Romo pass intended for running back DeMarco Murray was scooped up by linebacker Rob Jackson, setting up the Redskins' final touchdown drive.
"I thought the safe throw was to throw it to DeMarco under the swing, right to the sideline, and the guy (Jackson) made a play, peeling off as a defensive end," Romo said. "I wish I had made a better decision at that time. It was disappointing."
He added, "You put your heart into this thing for so long throughout the year. We had to overcome a lot of stuff just to get ourselves in this situation. We had a chance. I'm just disappointed that we couldn't get the job done."
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett offered no magic formula to turn around his team.
"Our effort and determination for this game was awfully good and indicative of what this team has been doing all year long," Garrett said. "At the end of the day, we did not get the job done."
The Redskins, who last won a divisional title when standout rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was nine years old, will play the Seattle Seahawks next weekend.
The Cowboys return to Dallas to consider what could have been.
Eding by Gene Cherry