'Tis the time of year for those familiar Cowboy collapses. But on Sunday night, with a cold wind blowing through Lincoln Financial Field and Christmas lights twinkling in the distance, the Cowboys upended the calendar and their own personal history, fending off a furious comeback by the Philadelphia Eaglesto win 38-27 and seize control of the NFC East. Where there has been misery -- and three consecutive 8-8 seasons -- there was instead a matter-of-fact satisfaction that the Cowboys might have finally crossed one of their own Rubicons when, after losing a 21-point second-quarter advantage by ceding 24 straight points, they gathered themselves and immediately regained the lead for good.
There probably weren't many Cowboys fans who hadn't queasily thought about how Dallas blew a big lead to the Green Bay Packers in a late-season game last year. But owner Jerry Jones has insisted for months this squad is different, a contention that has sometimes been met with doubting snickers. When the Cowboys pulled themselves back from the precipice of playoff failure -- had they lost, they would have dropped into a muddle of those on the outside looking in; with the win, they are the third seed with two to play and a chance at a first-round bye -- it was hard to disagree that they had made a statement. And, for a change, not the kind they might have preferred to whisper and hope nobody heard.
"Truthfully, before the season even started, we felt different," said receiver Dez Bryant, who was virtually unstoppable with three touchdowns and 114 yards on six receptions. "The biggest thing is, we stay together, we play together. We're more of a family. We respect one another and we try to bring out the best in each other. That's the difference."
That may be construed as an indictment of the chemistry of other Cowboys teams, and Dallas' resolve will be tested this week, with the uncertainty surrounding running back DeMarco Murray, who had surgery Monday on a broken bone in his left hand that could cause him to miss Sunday's game against the Colts.
But the Cowboys' mix has been altered in large part by their own experiences. Earlier this season, Romo told me that because his fundamentals are so routine now, his mind is calmer. Jones said that Romo's relationship with play-caller Scott Linehan is so in tune that the offense runs more smoothly through them.
Romo's physical toughness has never been in question. Much of the blame for the Cowboys' Thanksgiving meltdown at home to these same Eagles was pinned on the fact that Romo had just three days to recover from the previous game played with two fractures in his back. But the break from a past of frantic and fumbling finishes suggests that the Cowboys are now as tough mentally as Romo is physically. As the Eagles took the lead Sunday night, Romo was sitting on his bench, looking at photos on his tablet, barely noticing the stadium-rattling din around him. Romo might continue to be tagged as a choker because of his earlier foibles in big moments, but with the season threatening to collapse around him again, the quarterback calmly stood up and delivered a message to the offensive huddle.
"It's just, 'Hey, put your head down and do your job,' " Romo said. "That's what it is. Nothing more or less. It's literally about execution. And if you're good enough, you'll be able to eventually execute and find a way and do things that are positive."
The offense went eight plays and 78 yards to take the lead back and hold it tight. Romo was hit and landed on and whipped throughout that drive, and he came up limping on more than one play. This was the Romo that brings delight and dread in equal measures to Big D. His derring-do and spin moves are the stuff of highlight reels. His disasters are indelible parts of Dallas history, and even with back-to-back wins to start this December, the Cowboys are still just 14-17 in the month since 2007. But if Dallas makes a run this postseason, that drive will, in hindsight, be viewed as the pivot point. The Cowboys could have easily folded into their old patterns. They didn't, instead improving to 7-0 on the road this season behind a quarterback who has thrown 18 touchdowns and one interception while away.
"In those moments, you've got to be tough," Romo said. "Tough mentally and tough physically. You've got to say, 'I'm going to put it on the line right now,' and go out and do it. If that means I'm going to make a catch when I'm about to get hit, you go do it. If you want to stand in the pocket and know you're going to get hit, you do it. ... That's how you win games on the road and against teams like that."
The shiny star on the Cowboys' helmets has been sullied in the past at moments like this, giving way to oddball mistakes and mental fragility and those embarrassing prime-time losses. But even the ever-optimistic Jones admitted that his team has surpassed his own expectations from the start of this season.
"You go through bad and good things and you overcome them, and that's exactly what we did," Bryant explained.