It wasn't pretty, but Dallas crawled back to .500 with a narrow 19-14 victory over Carolina on Sunday in a game they had to have.
It wasn't really a must-win game. But it was one the Cowboys badly needed to keep any reasonable hope of a chance for the playoffs alive, and they managed to get it with their 19-14 defeat of the Panthers.
The game certainly had warts, but Dallas showed a good bit of resiliency following the disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens the week prior. It started off poorly, with three special teams penalties marring the first four minutes of the game. Dallas then put together a clock-eating 19 play drive, only to sputter in the red zone, forcing them to call on Dan Bailey for a short field goal.
Then things started to look all to familiar to Cowboys fans: Carolina took the ensuing kickoff and marched 76 yards down the field. But with a second and goal from the 6, the Cowboys finally got a couple of important breakthroughs as Morris Claiborne got his first NFL interception in the ends zone, which is also the first pick by a Dallas defensive back of the season.
Dallas' ensuing drive was thwarted by a Miles Austin fumble, when he was running in Carolina territory. In addition to swinging the momentum, the play also dealt a cruel blow to the Cowboys as center Phil Costa, who was impressive in his return the prior week, went down and had to be carted off the field. He did not return, and his loss was noticeable. The news about his injury is uncertain, but late word out of the team is that the ankle that got rolled up may not be as badly hurt as was thought. Hopefully, he will be back soon, since he was playing very well and gave the offensive line a huge boost.
Carolina used the momentum swing to put together an 80 yard touchdown drive (after a penalty during the fumble recovery put them on their own 20). The way they moved the ball leaves some disturbing questions about how Rob Ryan's defense handles hurry-up offenses. Too many times, they have been gouged by teams going no-huddle, and they need to find an answer. At the half, Dallas trailed 7-3, and their fans were no doubt worried about whether they would let this one slip away.
The second half started with an exchange of possessions, each team getting a first down and then stalling. Then came what turned out to be a crucial possession for the Cowboys. With the ball on their own 37 after a punt, Jason Witten was flagged for holding, and the team faced first and 20. A drop by Kevin Ogletree sent many fans' spirits plunging. But Tony Romo went back to Ogletree for 11 yards, setting up a manageable third and 9. Austin then redeemed himself, with a 36 yard catch and run to get the ball to the Carolina 26, and followed up with a catch in the left corner of the end zone of a beautifully thrown fade from Romo for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
Bailey added another field goal in the third quarter. Then things turned sour again as Carolina drove into the red zone, and twice the Cowboys committed penalties on third down to give the Panthers new life, one a totally foolish personal foul on Jay Ratliff. Mike Tolbert punched the ball in from the 2, and Dallas found itself behind 14-13 with 11:38.
After another exchange of punts, Dallas had good field position at their own 46, and got Bailey close enough for another field goal, putting the Cowboys back up by 2. It was back in the hands of the defense, which was a nervous proposition with Sean Lee out of the game with a toe injury. But Dan Connor, who has had his moments of infamy this season, and the rest of the D proved to be up to the task, and the Panthers were forced into an unsuccessful fourth down attempt.
They almost gave up the first down on a penalty, when they were caught unprepared for the Panthers to go for it, but Anthony Spencer made a heads up move in calling for a time out. When the attempt failed, Dallas had the ball on the Carolina 40. They couldn't move the ball far, but it was enough for Bailey to kick his fourth field goal of the game and give them a 5 point lead.
Carolina got one first down, but had used up their timeouts on Dallas' previous possessions and had to use one down to clock the ball. Then Anthony Spencer, who has silenced most of his critics with his play this season, and how much the team missed him when he missed a couple of games with an injury, corralled the elusive Cam Newton for a ten yard sack that effectively sealed the game.
The win leaves the Cowboys one game in the loss column behind the division-leading New York Giants, who come to Cowboys Stadium this Sunday. They bring a ton of questions with them, including the running game, which only accounted for 85 yards against Carolina, including 11 yards on Romo scrambles.
But they are in much better shape than they would have been with a loss. The fan base is still agitated, questioning why they were not able to put a one-win Carolina team away much easier, and the play calling of Jason Garrett in the red zone. The next game will either take the agitation to outright fury, or will create new hope that this team may have a chance after all.