EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The smile spread across Jerry Jones' face as he held court in the middle of the locker room. This is his little ritual, almost always in good times -- and often in bad, too, though this was most definitely one of the good ones. The Dallas Cowboys had just completed a 31-28 comeback victory over the New York Giants to keep pace with the Philadelphia Eagles at 8-3 in the NFC East entering their Thanksgiving afternoon showdown.
Jones was quick to give credit to a Giants team that played, for most of the night, well above its miserable record (3-8) and produced a jaw-dropping highlight-reel reception by Odell Beckham Jr. that will live for the ages. But the Cowboys earned this chance to crow, and with music blasting beside him so loudly that everyone had to lean in a little closer to that Cheshire Cat grin, Jones wasn't going to miss his moment. It has, after all, been seven long years since the Cowboys appeared primed for a deep playoff run, and Jones has had to deliver an awful lot of unhappy post-mortems in that span.
"I thought we had a great, great team when the Giants came up (in 2007) and came from the back side as the wild card, came down and beat us with home-field advantage through the playoffs," Jones said. "Tony (Romo) was our quarterback. We had our noted defensive players at that time. That was quite a loss for us. I thought that team was one of our finest teams. I'll put this team, I'll start talking about them in that category, personnel-wise, and we won some games that year that were really games that had to show character, and this team shows character."
It is still premature, even in late November, to think this iteration of the Cowboys looks as capable of winning a Super Bowl as the 2007 version, which went 13-3 before falling to the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. If the Cowboys had suffered a loss Sunday night, it would have been their third in four games, and the panic button would have been most firmly pushed in Dallas. The defense was gashed early, failing to get much pressure on Eli Manning during a first half in which, Jones admitted, the unit "scared" him.
Consider that the most critical stop of the Giants on the evening was made not by Dallas but by Manning himself. After guiding a long drive midway through the third quarter, Manning threw high to a wide-open Preston Parker, who could have strolled into the end zone. Instead, the errant pass was tipped into the hands of Cowboys safety Barry Church, and the Giants lost an opportunity to turn a four-point lead into an 11-point cushion.
There are many weeks left to discuss whether Dallas' defense is really significantly improved or just greatly enhanced by an offense that stays on the field. One stroll around the locker room, though, told you plenty about where the Cowboys are now -- in a happy place. Every other team in the NFL has at least two road losses, but Dallas is 5-0 in away games, as sure an indicator of toughness as there is in football. And the Cowboys were ebullient late Sunday night. In a corner just a few steps from Jones, Jason Witten sought to explain why this Dallas team just feels different from other Dallas teams.
"A core group of us, we've fought, somehow come up short in a lot of those games," Witten said. "It's good to see, when you don't play really well and (the) other team plays really good, to come out on the other side. I think we've always been tough. I think being poised is what we're doing a better job of. Not panicking when we're down at (the) half. We've made late pushes, but not starting the second half. We've done that a lot more consistently. It's good for our team. They're not always pretty."
The victory in New Jersey was most certainly not. At various points, the Cowboys trailed 7-0, 14-3, 21-10 and 28-24. And there were still shreds of the foibles and lack of discipline that marked their past on display. That near-miss Giants touchdown drive was aided by two boneheaded Cowboys penalties, one of them for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Jason Garrett talks a lot about process, and it is clearly a process to clean up all the goofball tendencies. His team is getting there, though. On Sunday night, it never felt like Dallas was teetering on the brink of a complete meltdown, even after three early Giants scoring drives, even after Beckham's catch. Those events would have been gut punches for previous incarnations of the Cowboys -- and for many other teams -- leaving them staggering and sagging. But on Sunday, you were never waiting for -- expecting, really -- the kinds of fatal mistakes that have dogged them so often before. The giddiness in the locker room suggested that this victory finally proved to the Cowboys themselves that all the conversations they've had about poise -- which Witten said began back in April and May -- have finally paid off.
"When you come up short three years in row, there's a lot of self-evaluating, looking at yourself in (the) mirror," Witten said. "There's always three or four or five plays. The team has addressed that."
Walking by was one of the Cowboys' hulking offensive linemen, a member of the unit that gave Romo enough time to go see a show on Broadway before throwing the winning touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. Dallas has methodically built a powerhouse on the line, even as the picks that made it possible have packed all the draft-night excitement of one of Garrett's somnolent press conferences about process. Neither produce great headlines, but for the Cowboys, they have produced great progress.
There has been little tranquility for this franchise in recent years, but on Sunday night, Romo said he had a "calming feeling" as the Cowboys began their two-minute drill. That triumphant drive, which ended with Romo dancing in the pocket -- untouched -- for at least seven seconds before Bryant found an opening in the back corner of the end zone, seemed to be a microcosm of their season. They were calm. Letting duress slide past them. Finding a way to win in a situation that, in the past, would have led to defeat.
"You just gain an understanding that you're never really out of it," Romo said. "You're comfortable being in uncomfortable situations -- if that makes sense. That comes through having been through it, experienced it, and then having to go out and figure out a way to win."
Romo and his exceptional play have been largely overshadowed while the rest of the Cowboys have blossomed around him. As the 2014 campaign comes down to its final weeks, however -- with two division-deciding gamesagainst the Eagles coming in a three-week span -- more of the onus will naturally fall on the quarterback, who has absorbed plenty of blame for the team's past stumbles.
It has been easy to mock the Cowboys and Jones himself for 8-8 and 8-8 and 8-8 and all those final-day collapses, and to wonder about the viability of Romo and his back for many more playoff pushes. But as the NFC field has begun to sort itself out -- the Packers are rising, the Lions are falling, the NFC South remains a mess -- Dallas is still very much in the mix, wildly surpassing preseason predictions of doom for a defense that was supposed to be historically bad and for a signal-caller who has so often been hurt and buried. Jones, whose gait has slowed just a little with age, said it would be "the most negative thing about my ownership" if Dallas fails to win a Super Bowl with Romo. For the first time in a long while, it did not seem laughable to mention the Super Bowl in the same breath as the Cowboys.
Jones hasn't let his stadium operations people remove Manning's signature from the visitor's locker room wall in Dallas, scrawled after the Giants beat the Cowboys in the game to open AT&T Stadium in 2009 -- the last year in which Dallas made the playoffs. Jones can smile about it now. But on Sunday, as Jones walked out of a locker room halfway across the country, pausing once, twice, three times to interrupt a television interview to congratulate Cole Beasley on his 45-yard touchdown reception, it was clear that the Cowboys' swagger was back. Jones and his team are rooted this time not in the overblown hype of preceding seasons that ended in disappointment, but in the reality that they might have been steeled by those moments for something much more.