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Cowboys getting type of wins that recently eluded the franchise

WASHINGTON -- The Cowboys have been known as plenty of things since Bill Parcells left the franchise in January of 2007.

Scrappy isn't one of them. Neither is tough or relentless.

Yet, on an uneven afternoon that was far from the rollicking rout of the week before, this Dallas group seemed to be all of those things, in scratching out a 27-24 overtime win against the Redskins at FedEx Field. It was far from perfect, and had Graham Gano not missed a 52-yard field goal in the extra frame, the narrative would be a much different one.

But sometimes you make your own breaks. And on Washington's final offensive series, that's just what Dallas did. The defense stood up after the unit gave a performance that offered Rob Ryan plenty to cuss about on the team's short week, with Barry Church burying Roy Helu for a 2-yard loss and Victor Butler sacking Rex Grossman in a three-play span, ensuring Gano wouldn't get a better look than the one he did.

"If you look at us last year, we found ways to lose games," said Sean Lee, the second-year linebacker who Ryan said will be "a damn superstar" last week. "We came up here the first game of the year (in 2010), fumbled the ball, found a way to lose it. Today, we found a way to win. That's something we've worked on. Coach (Jason) Garrett's preached it."

Maybe more significant was what Lee told me as we walked toward the bus, "As a defense, we shouldn't put them in a position to have a chance to win that game, taking it to overtime. So there's things we can get better on. But coming to Washington, getting a win, no matter how it happens, you gotta love it."

Here's what I know about the Cowboys under Wade Phillips, a team I covered as a beat writer for the Dallas Morning News in 2007 and 2008: They were talented as anyone, but very defensive about the intense coverage they got. If they won a game, it seemed like any criticism of their play was couched as "negativity."

That's why what Lee said struck me. It's been said that Parcells was less comfortable after wins than he was after losses, because he fretted that a victorious team wouldn't be as motivated to identify and correct flaws, whereas a team coming off a loss would have the impetus to push harder. The idea is it's not just about getting better, it's about ascending over the course of the season. That appears to be just what the current Cowboys are doing.

"During the season, the team that gets better wins," 10th-year Cowboy Bradie James told me. "Here we are, in the middle of November, but we still got December, we still got a lot more games to play. This is a game where you can catapult yourself -- winning this hard one, the ugly one, it shows you can win it when you need to win it."

That happened at the end, with plays made by no-names like Church and Butler to mitigate the defensive damage. Then, as Lee put it, "they missed a field goal, and our offense did what they do," referencing a drive keyed by Tony Romo -- playing in his second game pain-free, without a vest or shot, since breaking his ribs in Week 2 -- finding Dez Bryant for 26 yards on third-and-15 to set up Dan Bailey's game-winner.

You can give Lee a pass on that one, too. He's only been around two years, so he might've missed that this hasn't always been what the Cowboys do, or realize that too often the opposite has been true. For those who've spent years at Valley Ranch? They saw a step forward.

"I'm proud of Tony, and I'm really proud of Jason [Garrett]," owner Jerry Jones told me. "This was a hard, tough ballgame. I'm glad that Jason's got this kind of game in his repertoire as a head coach, and for sure Tony. Invariably, if you have any chance to have success in the postseason, you've got to have had wins like this. Otherwise, when adversity hits you in the postseason, you're not ready for it. So from that standpoint, it was good preparation for what you have coming."

To say big playoff games are what the Cowboys have coming might be jumping the gun. But having taken care of business in November, and with two showdowns with the Giants ahead, Dallas has given itself the chance to capitalize on a team that's progressing, rather than regressing, as the year has worn on.

Steelers pick up steam

The Packers are the obvious, overwhelming favorite to get to the Super Bowl out of the NFC. And I'm starting to believe the favorite in the other conference is also a defending champion.

Though some dirt was shoveled on Pittsburgh early in the season, the Steelers have the look of a team primed to pick up steam in December.

The defense has been without Aaron Smith, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, James Farrior and Casey Hampton for chunks of the season, yet still ranks second in the NFL on that side of the ball. Soon, they will have all those guys, sans Smith, back and ready to go. That'll probably help with two ugly statistics -- a league-low six takeaways and being tied for last in turnover differential -- this proud group has on its ledger.

And the offense has matured as the players have promised it would all along. Mike Wallace has emerged as the game's best vertical receiver, Antonio Brown has a legit shot at 1,000 yards in his second year, and Ben Roethlisberger is as efficient as he's ever been, having completed 63.3 percent of his throws for 2,877 yards.

Then, there's this -- even with the two losses to Baltimore, Pittsburgh's got a legit shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed. Included in their six remaining games are two against Cleveland, a trip to Kansas City and a home game against St. Louis. As such, 11-5 seems a certainty, and wins over Cincinnati and San Francisco could mean 13-3, which would likely mean the road to the Super Bowl again going through Heinz Field.

The Ravens might have an even softer schedule after the Thanksgiving showdown with San Francisco, getting Cleveland twice, slumping San Diego, and winless Indy before going to Cincinnati in Week 17. But they have shown a propensity thus far to play down to their competition, so it's not out-of-whack to think opportunity could arise for Pittsburgh.

Give Mike Tomlin credit, too. If you remember in his first year, way back in 2007, Steelers players said a tough camp had a cumulative effect and left them for dead late in the year. Since then, Tomlin's groups have gotten better as seasons have gone on, which says a lot for the coach's ability to manage his team.

Too late for Dolphins

It's almost certainly too late for jobs to be saved in Miami -- a feeling that owner Stephen Ross has made up his mind already is pervasive there -- but the three-game winning streak is working to acquit the current brass well, even if it's little consolation on the way out the door.

First, there's the obvious surface element here, which is that at 0-7, the players didn't quit. That reflects well on the coaches, for keeping the players focused, and the personnel department, for filling the locker room with character to ride out a particularly horrible stretch.

Second, there's talent there, and that'll be to the benefit of whomever the coach is in 2012. Core pieces like Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby, Vontae Davis, Jake Long, and Brandon Marshall will remain, and that's not a bad group to build around.

There's no question that if this does end the way most think it will, there will be plenty of regret there for the fractured power structure headed by Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano. Losses to Cleveland and Denver were very avoidable, and even the defeat to the Giants was one that got away from Miami.

I know this: Folks in Davie feel like the 6-4 or 5-5 record the Dolphins would have if things had fallen differently is more reflective of what the team is. And the fact that they aren't there going into the stretch drive is one big reason that this likely is this regime's last hurrah.

Patriots defense getting by

Kyle Arrington is perhaps the poster child for the Patriots' anonymous defense, having gone from a waiver-wire pickup to a seven-interception corner. I asked him if he'd seen the "Sunday Night Football" introductions from New England's game against the Jets. NBC had still shots of starters Jeff Tarpinian and Sterling Moore, instead of the usual talking heads repping their colleges, a sign of just how depleted New England is.

Arrington smiled, said he saw it and followed with a question of his own: "Has that ever happened before?" I told him I couldn't remember ever seeing it. Funny moment, and symbolic of where the team is on that side of the ball.

On Monday night, the Patriots moved to 7-3, with a defense starting five guys who entered the league as undrafted free agents. That shouldn't be overplayed, since Tom Brady has carried the team through parts of the season, and the defense has been the Achilles' heel for most of it. But for a team that's tried, in vain, to rebuild its defense through the draft, it's something worth examining.

Ultimately, I think it's going to be hard to win in the playoffs with a group scotch-taped together like these Patriots are, but the defense was able to take advantage of uneven quarterbacks the past two weeks, in Mark Sanchez and Tyler Palko. This week's challenge should tell us more, with Philadelphia's turbocharged skill players sure to test New England's ability to keep up in the talent department.

Five one-liners

1) Another reason why Matt Leinart's stepping into a good situation: He has not one, but two tailbacks that need just reasonable finishes to the season to get 1,000 yards rushing.

2) With the picking apart of Andrew Luck underway, one key statistic that should not be overlooked is the quarterback's 22-2 record over the past two years, no small feat at that football factory at Stanford.

3) Saturday's game against Oklahoma showed what Baylor QB Robert Griffin III is capable of on the football, but that isn't his only strength; already in grad school, Griffin has a pretty good head on his shoulders as well.

4) This week's Jets-Bills game might not be do-or-die for both teams, but the loser will have a tough road to hoe from here on out.

5) This was always going to be a retooling year in Seattle, but it's hard not to like the fight you're seeing from the team that Pete Carroll and John Schneider are putting together.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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