WASHINGTON -- The Dallas Cowboys endured an improbable fourth-quarter collapse with quiet indignation yesterday.
If they felt outrage in the wake of a stunning, 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins, it didn't surface in their solemn locker room.
And if they felt cheated by a controversial call on Washington's winning touchdown, it was left unsaid.
"Maybe it was due them," Cowboys guard Nate Newton said, "with all the lucky shots we've had on them."
"They had a great defensive scheme, and we had too many turnovers," wide receiver Michael Irvin said, voicing the obvious.
The Redskins cashed in four Dallas turnovers for 17 points and denied the Cowboys the satisfaction of clinching the NFC East title in RFK Stadium.
What the 11-3 Cowboys were left to deal with was the manner in which they lost. On a day when they clearly outplayed their division rivals, on a day when they were in position to secure the win -- and the title -- early in the fourth quarter, they made a gift of the game.
There was Kelvin Martin's muffed punt return that led to a second-quarter Redskins touchdown.
There was quarterback Troy Aikman's interception on the Redskins goal line in the face of a blitz early in the fourth quarter that led to a Redskins field goal.
There was a fumble by Irvin when he was stripped from behind by Redskins cornerback Darrell Green.
Then, for the topper, there was a double fumble in the Dallas end zone, where both Aikman and Smith lost the ball on the same play amid utter confusion.
When head linesman Tony Veteri ruled that the Redskins' Danny Copeland had, indeed, recovered the ball for a Washington touchdown, the Cowboys were fighting off shell shock.
"The Redskins gave a great effort, and our guys gave a great effort," said Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, biting off his words. "We turned the football over, and that was the difference TC in the game."
Johnson, who blasted officials a year ago after a poorly officiated game against the New York Giants, stepped carefully around the game-winning play, which came with 3:14 left.
His quarterback had retreated to the end zone on second-and-seven from the Dallas 5, and was met there by the onrushing Jason Buck. Aikman's arm appeared to come forward, but the ball went backward. It was retrieved momentarily by Emmitt Smith, who tried to pitch the
ball underhanded toward Alfredo Roberts when he realized he ** couldn't get out of the end zone.
What did Johnson think of the play?
"Our guys thought it was an incomplete pass," Johnson said. "They thought his arm was going forward."
Johnson also said he felt Smith was down in the end zone -- a safety, if so -- when he lost the ball.
Asked if he was upset at that unlikely finish, Johnson said, "I'm upset about a lot of things."
Aikman, who passed for 245 yards and two touchdowns, chose not to criticize the call.
"I tried to stop the throw," he said. "The next thing I know the ball's on the ground. I didn't know what the call was. To be honest with you, it doesn't matter. The officials called it a fumble, and the Redskins won the ballgame.
"I think we'll be fine. We've bounced back from losses this year.
We know what we have to do."
Smith insisted his knee was down in the end zone, "but just in case, I was trying to throw it," he said. "My first inclination was to get it out of the end zone.
"I'm definitely stunned. We had things going our way in the first half, and we let it slip away."
It was a play that begged for clarification through instant replay, which the NFL did away with in the off-season. Even as he admitted he was "sick" about the call, Dallas owner Jerry Jones said he doubted replay would have changed the ruling on the field.
"I don't know if it was clear as to what call should have been made," he said. "That still doesn't make it a good call. [But] instant replay has to be emphatic [to get a reversal].
The league, he said, would review the play, "but this won't create an instant-replay controversy."
Jones voted against replay at the league meetings that killed the officiating tool.
"The Redskins took care of their opportunity, and, boom, they got us," Newton said. "We made our mistakes and usually our mistakes are not as crucial. Everybody's mad, but it's too deep in the season to start panicking.
"It will come down to who is there at the end [of the season], and I think it will be us."
Stats not it
The Cowboys won the battle of statistics with the Redskins yesterday, but that didn't help them on the scoreboard:
Statistic.. .. .. ..Dal... .. .. ..Wash.
First downs.. .. .. 22.. .. .. .. ..14
Rushing yds... .. .121.. .. .. .. ..68
Passing yds... .. .221.. .. .. .. .178
Possession.. .. ..32:14.. .. .. .27:46