ARLINGTON, Texas -- After nearly 70 minutes of football, and nearly 40 minutes after the Dallas Cowboys finally started acting like the game had begun, the Cowboys lined up for the game-winning field goal. Kicker Dan Bailey narrowed his vision, went through his routine and booted a 38-yarder through the uprights. And like that, it was over.
For the first time since Week 12 of last season, the Cowboys have back-to-back victories. Unbelievably, despite the roller coaster they've ridden this season, they are just one game behind the New York Giants in the NFC East -- and the rest of their opponents this season have a combined record of 27-33.
The Cowboys won thanks to a tough-minded effort from quarterback Tony Romo, a career day from Dez Bryant (12 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown) and a resilient goal-line stand from the defense. And they did it despite having one foot in the grave in each of the past two weeks, ever since Bryant broke his fall and the Giants broke their hearts in Week 8.
Owner Jerry Jones summed up his thoughts outside an emptying Cowboys locker room on Sunday.
"We can't go out and rest on this, what we did out here," Jones said. "The facts are, we're 5-5. Sure we know that. We know the numbers. But we gotta play better."
Jones had praised his team's grit, its fight, its ability to come back from a 13-0 deficit in the first half. He'd lauded coach Jason Garrett for engineering a turnaround that included Romo completing 25 of 33 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown after halftime. And he'd smiled about revenge-minded defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's unit allowing just one play -- a 17-yard touchdown by Browns tight end Ben Watson that gave Cleveland a 20-17 lead with 1:07 left -- in the game's final 40 minutes.
But Jones' real message? That the way Dallas played against the bargain-basement Browns will not cut it. That if there was any euphoria over the victory, it should fade away pretty quickly.
"You can talk about these great character-builders," Jones said, "and all that's great. I'm proud of it. I need more of it. All that kinda thing. But it's time that we gotta get out here and have players that are committed professionals to be skilled and play and make plays and we gotta have game plans that -- when we come out on the field -- that we're not down before we're up."
Jones called Sunday's win "bass-ackwards from the antidote that we needed to play these Cleveland Browns."
The blame game is a Dallas staple, as it is in towns that are home to intense fan bases, high expectations and a fiery media market. Romo is at fault because of his 13 interceptions. No, Garrett's at fault for his late-game management. No, it's Jones himself, for building this roster. No, it's everyone around Jones, for their inability to evaluate talent.
"You'll say, 'Was that your coach, was that your quarterback, was that (your) receiver?' " Jones said. "That is not the point. It's everybody. When it's good, it's everybody. And when it's not, it's everybody. So, we gotta do that right there, or we will find ourselves sucking our last breath against a team that our expectations were to come in here and play better against."
Of course, like everything else that revolves around Dallas, it's not simple. The angst about missed chances? About having to hang on for dear life against the Browns? It all comes with this backdrop.
The Cowboys still have a chance to accomplish everything they've wanted and more.
"I'm not going to make any excuses for winning," said Romo, who completed 11 straight passes at one point on Sunday. "I know it's hard no matter who you play. At the same time, we need to play better if we are trying to do things we hope to accomplish. ... We just need to be better, I don't know how else to explain it."
What did the Cowboys fight through? They fell behind, 13-0. Romo was sacked a whopping seven times. They punted seven times. Just 63 of their yards came rushing. By the end of the game, with star Tyron Smith having suffered a high-ankle sprain, their left tackle was Jermey Parnell, a former University of Mississippi basketball player. With the game on the line, Garrett had no choice but to hand the ball to undrafted rookie running back Lance Dunbar, thanks to injuries to DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones.
While the Cowboys overcame those obstacles, there was a sense that they created all of them. There was also a sense that -- 10 games into a key campaign for Garrett and this squad's stars -- no one actually knows what kind of team the Cowboys are. No wonder cornerback Brandon Carr said, "I'm not really satisfied with our record. I'm not really satisfied with anything. That's the way I feel. We won, but it's over. Time to move on to the next game."
To be sure, there were positives on Sunday. Like a big-time, fumble-causing hit that Gerald Sensabaugh delivered on star Browns running back Trent Richardson when he was 1 yard away from converting a crucial first down with 12:54 left in the fourth quarter. The Browns recovered the ball but had to punt, setting up Dallas' second touchdown drive, which ended with a 28-yard scoring catch by Bryant.
Bryant's play overall, in fact, provided a massive dose of positivity.
"This is how I'm going to be," he announced.
There was also the goal-line stand later in the fourth quarter, with Richardson kept out of the end zone despite getting three carries inside the 6-yard line. Then, with 9:57 to go in overtime, safety Danny McCray stopped Browns receiver Josh Gordon in his tracks when he was 4 yards short of the first-down marker. The stop set the stage for Bailey's winning boot.
Plenty of positives. Just as many negatives. Five wins. Just as many losses.
"I think we'll benefit from it," Jones said. "I think there was enough here, enough feel-good, when we come out of here with a win. It gives us a mathematical chance."
******What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
Brady 1, Luck 0
A shootout between superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts never materialized. If we learned one thing on Sunday, when Luck surrendered three picks while Brady casually passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-24 beatdown, it's that the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft -- and the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year -- isn't ready to go head-to-head with Brady. He isn't ready to recreate the classic duels between the Patriots' veteran and the Colts' former leader, Peyton Manning.
That's nothing to be ashamed of. When Brady and Manning were rookies, they wouldn't have been ready to battle a quarterback as good as their veteran selves, either.
What shouldn't be overlooked is the gamesmanship Brady unleashed, subtle as it was.
Though Brady has told the story of his first encounter with Manning -- with the veteran delivering a friendly "Hey Tom, I'm Peyton," greeting -- several times, Brady did not say hello to Luck before Sunday's matchup. "We didn't have a chance," Luck said, sounding like he was covering for Brady. "Schedules, whatever."
And then Brady played like he was furious about the hype his counterpart was getting, giving a performance that was reminiscent of what he did against the Denver Broncos last season -- when Brady's disdain for the publicity surrounding Tim Tebow was captured in a vicious spike. Brady notices when he's not the most-discussed quarterback, and he doesn't seem to like it. Perhaps that's why he stayed on the field for almost all of the blowout, scoring until the final whistle. It's almost like No. 12 wants upstart quarterbacks to earn their stripes.
Luck isn't quite there yet. He will be, though.
What is Bart Scott doing?
Attempting a media boycott, Bart Scott? Berating defensive teammates who talked to reporters after what should have been a feel-good, 27-13 victory for the New York Jets over the St. Louis Rams and former Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer? Walking back and forth between the trainers' room and the locker room, loudly and immaturely telling players such as Yeremiah Bell and Bryan Thomas to answer media questions by simply saying "both teams played hard?"
I feel like I speak for players and reporters when I say, "Grow up."
After a tumultuous week that included anonymous players criticizing Tim Tebow in a New York Daily News article, Scott decided to rally the team against the media. Or something. I don't know what his point was, because he apparently talked to reporters himself later in a calm fashion, as if nothing happened.
This is the third inappropriate incident for Scott since January. At the conclusion of the 2011 season, he flipped off a reporter, earning a $10,000 fine. In September, he had to be separated from a reporter because the reporter took a picture. This time, thankfully, teammates such as Bell and Thomas told Scott to knock it off.
So while some in the Jets organization are grinding, trying to get it right, trying to save jobs, Scott is trying to fight media members. The over-the-hill linebacker is likely in his final season in New York, and he's only on the roster because of a $4.2 million guaranteed salary. At what point do the Jets step in and take control? At what point does Scott, with his one assisted tackle, become too much of a distraction? If the Jets do want to take back their team, eliminating such useless troubles would be a good place to start.
Patience, my dear Raiders
The frustration is understandable. The Oakland Raiders, boasting a new coach in Dennis Allen and plenty of talented players like running back Darren McFadden, seemed like a possible contender this season. Ten games into their campaign, the Raiders are anything but: Oakland is 3-7, and has lost three in a row. The latest defeat, Sunday's woeful 38-17 loss to the Saints, was never very close.
Does this ugly display mean Allen is in trouble? It shouldn't. The Raiders have salary-cap issues. The Al Davis era recently ended, and the franchise is still remaking itself from the inside out. The Raiders need a foundation. It all takes time. The key to getting back to what the Raiders used to be? Hide those quick instincts.
"You can't blame it on the salary cap," owner Mark Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I am disappointed with the regression. But they'll fight and hopefully they'll fix it. ... I am patient, but I want to see progress."
When it comes to clear rebuilding situations like Oakland's, my thoughts are simple. If Allen is the guy -- and it appears many think he is -- chill. Relax. Don't make any rash decisions. Swallow your pride for a year or two while the organization shapes up.
Good to see Davis said he'll be patient. There will be a pull, particularly from fans, to make changes. If you believe in rebuilding, there must be growing pains. They aren't fun. The rewards are.
Some rapid-fire takes
» I talked to a scout this week who wondered what had happened to Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson. He doesn't look like himself, the scout said. The thinking was, maybe Johnson had gotten old fast. Well, all he did Sunday was put up 273 yards and 14 catches, including the game-winner against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Afterward, Johnson said, "I've been telling you guys I've been feeling better and better every week. Maybe you guys will believe me after that."
» Wow, the Saints are suddenly quite real, getting back to 5-5 and into the NFC playoff mix. How long ago does it seem like they were 0-4? Just try to keep them from the playoffs, even with their brutal schedule.
» Watching Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald break free into the end zone, only to have quarterback John Skelton overthrow him by 5 yards in the first quarter, was depressing. How many scores has this still-productive receiver missed out on over the years thanks to poor quarterback play?
» That's four in a row for the hard-charging Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are watching quarterback Josh Freeman grow up before their eyes. Eighty yards in 50 seconds with no timeouts? Whew. The throw into triple coverage that wound up in receiver Vincent Jackson's hands at the end of regulation was nice. The smooth play-fake on the two-point conversation was better.
» The Browns have deficiencies, and their talent base is fair at best. But if you're going to build, do it like they have. Cleveland's offensive line, led by left tackle Joe Thomas, is its best unit, and quarterback Brandon Weeden looked poised and relaxed all day behind it. On the other side, the Browns' physical front four helped sack Romo seven times. Cleveland CEO Joe Banner does, in fact, have some material to work with.
» One wonders, given the kicking issues that the Green Bay Packers had, if Nate Kaeding might be getting a call. How can Green Bay stand by and allow Mason Crosby to miss seven of his last 13? Not many weak links in Green Bay, but that's one.
» If Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey keeps his job for another year, games like Sunday's will be part of the reason. A lost season is winding down, his team was on enemy turf against the NFL's best -- and the Jags nearly pulled off a win. This team looks very far away from packing it in. Of course, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien refusing to publicly commit to 2013 does raise eyebrows, considering he was previously linked to Jacksonville. But Mularkey had his team ready Sunday ... thanks in part to backup quarterback Chad Henne.
» It took 10 weeks, but Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis finally gained more than 100 yards. If Cincy gets its ground game cranking, all it does is buy Andy Dalton and A.J. Green just a little more freedom. It's how they envisioned it.
» What a sad sight to see Arrowhead Stadium nearly empty with minutes to go in the Kansas City Chiefs' loss to the Bengals. A proud football town in shambles. The lack of fan support is a development that should shake those in the organization to their core.
» I can't laugh at the media coverage, because I'm still curious, every week, about what Jets quarterback Tim Tebow will do. I'm one of the people served by the frenzy; I can't help it. But 10 games in, he's simply a non-factor. On Sunday, he touched the ball three times and accounted for negative-6 yards.
» How many rookies would have survived an environment like FedExField? That's unclear. But Nick Foles did not. Interceptions on his first two drives on the road against the Washington Redskins likely triggered some changes in the Philadelphia Eagles' game plan, especially after they fell behind, making it hard to judge the Eagles rookie. Foles might be back at the helm this week.
» Baltimore Ravens defensive backs Bernard Pollard and Corey Graham hit the way they were supposed to in the final seconds of their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers: hard, fast and legal. See, everyone -- it can be done. No head-hunting required.
» Detroit Lions wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan argued on the sideline on Sunday. According to the Detroit Free Press, the disagreement was over Jefferson's frustration with receiver Titus Young. One wanted him off the field. Trouble seems to find Young. And his production (33 catches for 383 yards) has been underwhelming. Tick, tock. ...
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