IRVING, Texas (AP) Tony Romo has everyone talking again after another late-game mistake, this time an interception that spoiled the first 500-yard passing game in Dallas history.
Among those chiming in: Monte Kiffin, the man in charge of the defense that couldn't make Romo's 506 yards and five touchdowns stand up against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in a 51-48 loss. The game ended with a field goal set up by an interception of Romo deep in Dallas territory in the final 2 minutes.
And the defensive coordinator wasn't even asked about Romo.
"First thing I want to say, people will say that Tony Romo throws the interception, we can't win the big one," Kiffin told a crowd of reporters in the Dallas locker room Wednesday, just a few feet from Romo's space. "Well, he went toe to toe with one of the best ever in the game of football.
"Don't put that on him. You put that on me. Don't put that on Tony Romo."
There's a reason so many Cowboys felt obliged to speak up for their quarterback this week. It's not the first time he's made a crushing error late in a dramatic game.
There was the flub of the hold on a potential winning field goal in a playoff game against Seattle in his first season as a starter seven years ago.
Fast-forward to last December, when a chance for a winning drive ended quickly on a Romo pick in a playoffs-or-bust finale against Washington, the opponent Sunday night as Romo tries to put his latest painful memory behind him.
There were plenty of costly Romo moments in between for teammates who stand behind the quarterback, even while living with the uneasiness that the latest untimely goof might not be the last.
"We are a close-knit group," Romo said. "More than anything I trust those guys. I know they trust me. All the things that come about during a season, there are going to be moments, but we believe in each other."
The chatter outside the locker room isn't quite so Romo-friendly, of course. It's the same chorus that arose for most of Romo's more recent failures in crucial moments: Do the Cowboys have a championship-caliber quarterback?
"There's no question it's been going on a long time," said receiver Dez Bryant, Romo's top target in his fourth year out of Oklahoma State. "Even when I was in college, you know, I used to hear things. And I always thought Tony was a great quarterback and he still is to this day.
"He's the leader of our football team. As soon as things go right, everybody will be praising him."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones always finds himself having to come up with new ways to defend the quarterback he signed to a $108 million extension in the offseason. The latest was a comparison to John Elway, who Jones says had the same can't-win-the-big-one tag until things changed at the end of a long career in the late 1990s.
This week's opposing coach, Mike Shanahan, would know. He was in charge of the Broncos when Elway won consecutive Super Bowls to close out his Hall of Fame career.
"I know when I was with John going into the 15th, 16th year, you had the same people saying that he couldn't do it throughout his whole career and then when he does it, everybody's, `Ah, well, we knew he could do it,"' Shanahan said. "It's the same old thing. You've just got to fight through it. You can't listen to the critics and you've got to believe in yourself. And I'm sure that's what Tony's doing."
What made this mistake a little different for Romo was how spectacular he was before Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan's diving interception at the Dallas 24.
Romo was at his freewheeling best - darting out of trouble in the pocket, making pinpoint throws for first downs and long touchdowns, including an 82-yarder to Terrance Williams that got Dallas back in the game in the third quarter.
After the Broncos pulled even on a field goal in the fourth quarter, Romo found Bryant for 79 yards to set up the go-ahead score, only to watch the defense let Manning tie it again.
There was one other reason Romo was getting a pass, even from some fans. The Cowboys put up 48 points, and it still wasn't enough.
"Tony played fantastic in the game," linebacker Sean Lee said. "The defense let us down in that game and that starts with a guy like me. I didn't play well enough. I didn't make enough plays."
Romo did - until the end.
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