ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jason Garrett threw 294 passes in a mostly nondescript NFL career. Even the most ardent of Dallas Cowboys fans barely remembers those not featured in his Thanksgiving Day comeback against the Green Bay Packers in 1994. The life of a career backup quarterback can be like that.
That all changed Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium.
Garrett has since replaced footballs with challenge flags, a clipboard for a play sheet. Late in the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles, with his team trailing by seven, Garrett the coach might have done something Garrett the player never could do.
Save a season. For the moment, at least.
With time waning in that quarter, after running back DeMarco Murray had apparently been stopped on fourth-and-1 to give the Eagles the ball, Garrett reared back and fired a challenge flag that changed everything.
The Cowboys were facing the prospect of going back on defense against an Eagles team they suddenly couldn't stop, in another nationally televised debacle-in-the-making. Garrett's right arm put a halt to that.
"Did it catapult us?" offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. "I thought so. Well, we finished the drive. Then, the quarter changed and it gives us a little time to regroup. I thought that was maybe a little bit to our advantage."
Handed another life -- and, more importantly, the ball -- when the call was reversed, all Dallas did was begin the process of yanking back the game. It set the stage for a 38-33 win that pulled the Cowboys back to 6-6 and gave them more playoff life than they've had in a long time.
The NFL can be fickle. For the Cowboys, this is reality. Every loss is doom; every win is salvation. Every glimmer of hope is scrutinized through the league's most powerful microscope. Jobs and dreams can be created or ruined based on the smallest of actions.
Garrett's challenge flag, which prompted the reversal of the spot by referee Jeff Triplette, was the springboard. What could have been a game-changing stop by the Eagles eventually turned into Tony Romo-to-Miles Austin from 27 yards out, tying it up with 13:41 left. The Eagles hit a field goal, but Dallas responded with a 6-yard touchdown catch by Dez Bryant, the receiver muscling his way into the end zone for a 31-27 lead. And when rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne's scoop-and-score from the 50-yard line with 3:50 to go went in the books, so did a Cowboys win.
Dallas was still breathing.
"We got something to play for," Claiborne said. "These last four ball games, we can leave it all on the field."
Yes, 12 games in, many of the same issues that have plagued Dallas for much of the season are still present. The Cowboys trailed by double digits for the fifth straight game at home. They allowed a woeful Eagles team, which was missing its starting quarterback, top running back and the majority of its offensive line, to gain 423 yards. That's why owner Jerry Jones described himself as "very hopeful" but also "realistic" about the fact that things must improve.
Cowboys 38, Eagles 33Check out the best photos from the Week 13 matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys.
But within the uneven performance was one shining reason for optimism. During a productive second half for the Cowboys' offense, for the first time since the Week 6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the unit looked like Garrett imagined it would.
That challenge flag bought the Cowboys more time to show they've changed.
Murray was back after missing six games with an ailing foot, piling up 83 yards (and a touchdown) on 23 carries. But his impact shouldn't be measured in yards. Instead, it should be measured by how efficient he made Romo and the rest of the offense.
"Like Jason talks about," Callahan said. "When you have good balance and you keep people off balance, I think it goes to your favor. You can change up, you can throw it, you can run it, you can run (play)-action; you're controlling. You're dictating the tempo and you're also dictating what you want to do to the defense. That was a positive."
Murray's first run was a 14-yarder, serving notice to the Eagles that they'd have to defend him. Garrett wasn't lying when he said Murray is "just a damn good football player." Thanks to Murray, Philly was prevented from selling out against the pass, as so many other Cowboys opponents have done.
As Austin said simply, "It's better when you can run and pass." Dallas went 9-for-14 on third downs (and 1-for-1 on fourth down) and had no turnovers. Romo was sacked twice, but not once in the second half. In the final 30 minutes, Romo was 10-for-10 for 169 yards.
The Eagles' defense had to play honest and protect against the run, which also limited its ability to play a safety over the top of Bryant. The budding star responded with five catches for 84 yards and two scores in the second half.
In short, everything improved.
Want proof? Watch the replay of Austin's touchdown off play-action, with Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans biting on the fake and allowing Austin to race untouched across the middle of the field. Without a run game, Ryans might have shrugged at Romo's fake handoff.
Asked what made the difference offensively, Bryant quickly said it was having Murray back. "He came in and rushed the ball like he hadn't missed a game."
Finally whole, the Cowboys played like they always thought they could on offense and -- thanks in large part to a beneficial challenge toss -- overwhelmed the Eagles in the second half. And now, with four games to go, Dallas' goals are still within reach.
"Each game, obviously, we're playing for our playoff lives," Romo said. "I think the story will be written at the end of the year."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
Chiefs made the right decision
The Kansas City Chiefs dealt with an unimaginable tragedy on Saturday. Linebacker Jovan Belcher is gone, taking his own life at the team's training facility after taking the life of his girlfriend, the mother of his child. It all happened just one day before a football game that suddenly seemed meaningless.
And yet, at the time, I believed the Carolina Panthers and Chiefs should continue to play as scheduled. I couldn't quite articulate why, except to say that players often lean on football and routine when times are tough.
Leave it to Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, following a stirring and emotional 27-21 win over Carolina, to put it into perspective. Leave it to Crennel, who witnessed the horrific scene at the Chiefs' facility, to communicate a message to reporters that he also surely delivered to his team.
"It takes our mind off our misery for a few hours," Crennel said.
That, simply, is good enough for me. The team got together, consulted the captains, talked with the NFL and the NFL Players Association and decided to play with heavy hearts. Why? So they could focus on something besides the events that they'd struggled to come to grips with.
Everyone deals with sadness and hard times differently. I understand the argument that the teams should have honored those who were grieving by not playing. But I think they were honored. The game helped them begin to heal.
As linebacker Derrick Johnson said, "When something happens like this, what we're going to be doing is sitting around three or four hours when we're supposed to be playing, just thinking about the tragedy that went on."
Greg McElroy to the rescue
Tim Tebow? Nope, he was inactive. What a coincidence, by the way, that the first time Tebow is inactive this season, Ryan inserts third-stringer Greg McElroy into the game.
Of course, you know what happened: McElroy directed the game's only touchdown drive, punctuating it with a 1-yard scoring strike to Jeff Cumberland. Stunning that after all that Tebowmania, this was the result in a 7-6 win for Gang Green.
Two points stick out to me. First of all, I covered McElroy when he was at Alabama, and it would be difficult for me to be more impressed with a player's mental makeup. He gets it, which he proved when asked about whether or not he should start going forward.
"It's not worth speculating about, to be honest with you," he said.
He's smart, he's savvy, his teammates love him and he can manage a game. At Alabama, he won a national title by handing off to Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and by not making mistakes. For a Jets offense that still hopes to ground and pound, he might be perfect.
Now, here's the second thing that comes to mind: This is terrible news for the Jets, in the long term. They've guaranteed $8.5 million to Sanchez for 2013, and they have no idea if he's better than their third-stringer. They could cut bait and eat the money. But they're dealing with an albatross.
Chuckstronger and stronger
Want to tell me something special isn't going on in Indianapolis? Go ahead. I won't believe it.
Whatever is going on there was at work again for the Colts against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Down 12 with 4:02 left, it was time for Andrew Luck -- and some magic. First, Luck, drove the team 85 yards, punctuating the drive with a 42-yard strike to LaVon Brazill. Then, he drove the Colts 75 yards with 1:07 left, hitting Donnie Avery for the game-winning score on an unlikely underneath pass as time expired on fourth-and-10 from the Lions' 14.
Clock-killing spikes excepted, Luck completed 8 of 15 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns over the final four minutes, with 17 rushing yards for good measure. The poise he showed is so unreal for a rookie it literally doesn't seem real. It's been that way for the whole team.
The Colts lost their coach when Chuck Pagano began treatments for cancer. They're one of the league's youngest squads. They have a first-year quarterback. And all they've done is go 8-4, putting them in prime position to lock up a playoff spot, with interim coach Bruce Arians emerging as a leader.
It takes some special character to make that happen. I don't know how the Colts are doing it. But whatever characteristics allow them to soldier on amid difficult circumstances are the same ones that allow them to be calm and efficient with the game on the line. Impressive.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh can't win. Either he's guilty of unflattering behavior again or he'll simply never live down this reputation. His past actions have colored opponents' views. Case in point: Colts guard Mike McGlynn told The Indianapolis Star that Suh was laughing and dancing after injuring a player. I don't know if he was or not. But it never ends for Suh.
» Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is right: His quarterback, Russell Wilson, doesn't receive the credit that a similarly impressive rookie named Luck does. It's because he plays in Seattle, and no one gets overlooked like the Seahawks. Just keep winning, though, and we'll notice eventually.
» Peyton Manning's 8-yard touchdown pass to Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas made me laugh. It looked like Thomas didn't realize he had it until the ball landed in his stomach. That kind of accuracy is vintage Manning.
» Is it safe to say the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams are the two most evenly matched teams ever? It took 149 minutes and 56 seconds to break a tie. Of course, it was Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein who secured the win with a 54-yarder. Sweet redemption after what happened in Week 10. St. Louis' rebuild is ahead of schedule.
» The Green Bay Packers must find a way to protect Aaron Rodgers better. I know he was sacked just twice in the 23-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, but he was under duress and on his back all day. The fact that he has the talent to make sure it doesn't matter is just one aspect of his greatness. But it's not the way to win football games.
» I know the Vikings love quarterback Christian Ponder internally. But when he does things like throw across his body on a pass that was intercepted by Green Bay's Morgan Burnett, it must make them wonder. He hasn't progressed in his sophomore year as the Vikes' brass hoped he would.
» With C.J. Spiller busting out as a surprise star this year, it was easy to forget that the other guy the Buffalo Bills have is pretty nasty, too. Thanks, Fred Jackson, for reminding us. Buffalo rode him for 109 yards on 25 carries in a blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
» Speaking of the Jags, back to Earth for Chad Henne. As he attempts to prove he's worthy of being their starter next year, it gets harder. Teams now have a scouting report on him; completing just 18 of 41 passes shows he has work to do.
» I'm sure there is mass hysteria in Chicago over the Chicago Bears' mind-numbing loss to Seattle that shouldn't have even gone to overtime. However, it's worth noting that the offensive line allowed just one sack. If the Bears are going to make noise in the playoffs -- and I think they are -- that trend has to continue.
» Another Sunday when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton piles up sick stats in a losing effort with 232 passing yards, three touchdowns and 78 rushing yards. At some point, though, one must wonder why he doesn't win more. What's missing in the equation?
» Just one more reason to say Wes Welker is one of the most competitive dudes out there. In 10 games against the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots receiver has 87 catches for 1,084 yards with five touchdowns, including a ho-hum 12-catch effort for 103 yards and a score on Sunday. Think he doesn't remember Miami trading him? Oh, he remembers.
» It's not a win, and there are no prizes for moral victories, but that was a pretty strong showing from the Miami Dolphins' defense. The unit confused Tom Brady, limiting him to a 24-for-40 outing for just 238 yards. Of course, Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork put things in the proper perspective: "The offense is allowed to have a bad game here and there. They've done so much for us."
» The debate rages on as to whether Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is elite or not. Still. After going 16 of 34 for 188 yards against his archrival with a playoff berth ready to be clinched, it rages on.
» The lack of quarterback talent on the Arizona Cardinals' roster is stunning. I know coach Ken Whisenhunt considered benching Ryan Lindley in their ugly loss to the Jets, but what would've been the point? All of their quarterbacks are bad. This team has so much in place; Arizona's struggles just emphasize how essential it is to have a viable option at quarterback in this league.
» Part of the education for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is how he responds to adversity. He has some now. He gave the Rams most of their points on Sunday, handing cornerback Janoris Jenkins a score on a poor pitch and giving up the safety. Though his stats were fine, I wondered if coach Jim Harbaugh would pull him at some point. But if he is the quarterback of the future, it makes sense to keep him in there. Kaepernick will just have to learn on the fly.
» As bad as the Philadelphia Eagles have been this year, the franchise's next head coach will have a stocked cupboard. The fact that they've discovered Bryce Brown can be a star -- if he can only learn how to stop putting the football on the turf -- is just one reason why.
» For as much praise as new offensive play caller Dowell Loggains receives in Tennessee, he had a rough first outing as the coordinator. His Titans scored just 10 points, though it's tough to blame him for nearly 10 drops and two fumbles. Those kinds of gaffes have doomed a talented offense all year.
» On the flip side, Wade Phillips' Houston Texans defense reawakened from a two-game slump with a disruptive performance that's far more typical of this unit. Houston is easily the NFL's most well-rounded team.
» Could a backup quarterback play a more perfect game than Charlie Batch did for the Pittsburgh Steelers? That's all you need to do. Just don't contribute to your team losing. Beating the Ravens on the road is as impressive as anything the Steelers have done this season.
» The questions about whether or not Philip Rivers should continue to be the franchise quarterback for the San Diego Chargers must continue after that brain cramp of an interception in the end zone with a chance to win it. Years ago, he was money with the game on the line. How did Rivers fall so far so fast?
» The Cleveland Browns have won four of their last seven games. That's all adding up to a very difficult decision for new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner at the end of the year. If they are looking for progress from coach Pat Shurmur, this is it.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.