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Dallas Cowboys top Lions, reverse perception about falling apart

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There have been a number of moments over the course of 2014 when it seemed the Same Old Cowboys were ready to rear their heads, and pull the proverbial football away from the fan base's foot. Again.

And there were more than a few of those Sunday during Dallas' 24-20 win over Detroit at JerryWorld.

Right off the bat, Detroit's defensive line took control against a previously infallible Dallas offensive front. The Cowboys' defense and special teams had breakdowns (on a 51-yard touchdown and a drive-extending running-into-the-kicker call) that led to a 14-0 deficit. Sacks killed two second-quarter drives. An offensive pass-interference flag almost blunted a third. Dan Bailey missed a field goal. A critical third-quarter penalty pushed the ball back to the 17 in a goal-to-go situation.

Any one of those things could have been enough to sink the Same Old Cowboys.

So we can safely say now, 17 games and 13 wins in, that those guys are gone. And in their place is a tough, resilient group that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat the way they used to chase success back into the hands of failure.

Maybe next week, Dallas keeps rolling. Or, maybe Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are too much. But after a dramatic game that was marred by controversial officiating at the end, it's probably time to stop looking for the bottom to fall out.

"This team has done an unbelievable job with composure," tight end Jason Witten said after the game. "It's been that way since April. I think when you experience what we have the last few years, there's a mindset. The change that you wanna see, you have to go do something about it. I've said it all year, we watched those games, we talked about the handful of plays that were difference-makers in game."

The games and plays that Witten is referencing are the same ones you're thinking of. The stakes are high. The pressure is on. Something bad is about to happen.

Only on this late afternoon in January -- like a lot of other afternoons in 2014 -- those moments didn't come. Just like they stared down 21-0 and 10-0 deficits in St. Louis and Seattle, respectively, and like they crushed it in important spots against the Eagles and Colts, the Cowboys' performance rose in stride with the tension against a very game bunch from Detroit.

That offensive pass-interference penalty that turned third-and-2 into third-and-12? Terrance Williams responded with a 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown to cut the lead to 14-7. Bailey with a rare short miss in the third quarter? Dallas came back with a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on its next possession, and Bailey drilled a difference-making 51-yarder in the fourth quarter. A false start moves third-and-goal from the 3 to the 8? Romo responds by eluding the rush and finding Williams for the game-winner on the next snap.

The Lions would argue, with some merit, that the Cowboys had help from the guys in stripes late in the game. But the old Cowboys might not have taken advantage of it. These Cowboys did.

"I think Coach Garrett has laid a great foundation for us, we worked on all the situations in OTAs, training camp, and through the season," DeMarco Murray said, in a cleared-out locker room. "That definitely helps us, come gametime, to stay calm, knowing the situations. We're not worried about what people think. We know what's said. We just gotta play for each other, play hard."

Accordingly, Murray explained that was why a team that always seemed uneven in the past never lost its head with its season on the line. Down 14-0, the NFL's rushing champ said the message on the sideline was really simple: "Stay relaxed ... trust yourself and trust the coaching."

That's been the guide all year for Jason Garrett, who's been derisively called Coach Process in the past.

The consistency, and the persistence of his message over the last four years is paying off now, as is Jerry Jones' patience in a leader he's invested most of the last two decades developing. All of that combined explains why a team that acted like a beheaded chicken in big spots in the past has suddenly become so steady.

"Jason is the King of the Process," Witten said. "His message has stayed consistent with it. That shows a lot of confidence in him, knowing that we're gonna come out on the other side. That's what really good coaches do. They're ahead of the group. That's been Jason's message from the beginning."

And with that, the Cowboys have a real living breathing identity now.

Better yet, it's become their default when it matters most, giving the team something to lean on when things get tense. There wasn't a single moment when the players turned the corner.

But they did do it, that part is unmistakable.

"There were different times. I don't know that there was (one)," Witten said. "Tennessee, after we come off that tough loss against San Francisco, the way we responded was good. And then, St. Louis, we're down 21, and it was the ability to stay with it. And do it playing our football, running the ball still. There were different times where you're like, man, we're really sticking to what we do, our identity on offense, defense and special teams, and that's the way we play. It's worked out for us."

That doesn't guarantee anything next week at Lambeau.

Rodgers is great, and the Packers won 12 games with a playoff-hardened roster. Dallas could play well and lose.

But to expect it to happen in spectacular fashion? The Cowboys now seem to be past that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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