ARLINGTON, Texas -- Last year, when he was in the midst of his finest season, Tony Romo admitted that he was playing with a heightened sense of urgency, acutely aware that a quarterback in his mid-30s does not have many more chances to win an elusive championship.
The math had only gotten more difficult by Sunday night. Romo is 35, his best receiver was in the locker room with a foot injury and the Cowboys were on the verge of a catastrophic loss. The kind of loss beset by turnovers and mindless penalties. A home loss that would have pinned the Cowboys into an uncomfortable early position, with a daunting schedule ahead.
In years past, Romo, gifted the ball with 1:30 remaining thanks to a dreadful decision by the Giants to pass on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, might have contributed to the chaos. On Sunday night, you could sense the tiniest bit of lingering dread in AT&T Stadium. The Giants had given the Cowboys a chance -- a slim one, because Dallas had no timeouts left -- and there was a quiet fear that the younger, more reckless Romo would reemerge.
But the truth is, that hasn't been Romo for a while now. Last year, he talked about learning to calm his mind, and that in turn allowed him to calm his play. He did not have to be as random, he thought, because his fundamentals were so solid. On Sunday, he had already led one quick-strike drive in the fourth quarter to shrink Dallas' deficit to three points. And in the final moments, Romo may have buried his reputation for recklessness forever, orchestrating a pinpoint-perfect, six-play drive that, with a touchdown pass to Jason Witten, crushed the Giants with 7 seconds remaining and salvaged a sloppy 27-26 victory.
The play that will linger, that may encapsulate all that was once bad and is now good about Romo, was the touchdown pass itself. The snap was low, and Romo dropped it. Maybe in another year, the play would have collapsed then. But Romo kept his eyes up as he grasped the football. The Giants had gotten little pressure on Romo all night, and Romo had just enough space to stand up and see Witten being jostled at the goal line. Romo fired, Witten caught it, nudged himself into the end zone and, with Romo pumping his arms, the game was over. In the Cowboys' final two drives -- which both came with less than 8 minutes to play in the game, and with Dez Bryant in the locker room with what would later be diagnosed as a broken bone in his foot that will require surgery -- Romo was 11 of 12 for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
"You've got to stay calm," Romo said. "You can't just fall on it and protect the football. You've got to have poise in that situation when random things happen. You find through the years, the experience you've had, you can get calm, get back up, trust the guys around you to do their jobs and go through the progressions.
"The second-to-last drive, they came after us, they're all-out pressuring. I had to change the play a couple times. What you have to understand is, you really rehearse this and prepare in your mind way before the game. The more times you can do that, it feels like you've already gone through it. It's systematic and not random."
That is exactly what the Giants did not show when they were trying to both score and bleed the clock with 1:43 remaining. The Giants called for a pass on third-and-1 instead of a run. Coach Tom Coughlin took the blame for the play call. And then, with no receiver open, Eli Manning backpedaled and threw the ball away, which stopped the clock. He took the blame for not simply taking a sack, which would have allowed precious seconds to run off the clock to put the Cowboys into a much deeper hole than the one they pulled themselves from.
Instead, the Cowboys emerged emboldened. If there was a significant question about the Cowboys entering the season, it was whether the running game, with DeMarco Murray having signed in Philadelphia, could possibly match the potency of 2014 with a running back-by-committee approach. The answer, at least for now, seems to be yes, with the Cowboys rushing for 80 yards on 23 carries and Joseph Randle getting the bulk of the work (16 rushes for 65 yards).
The running game was credited with removing some of the pressure on Romo last year, and one opposing coach opined then that the Cowboys would go only as far as the running game took them. The running game might not take them as far this season, and that seems fine. Romo was so in command, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said, that he did not get frustrated even as the turnovers mounted and the Giants' lead lengthened.
"It would have been easy to say, 'What the heck are we doing?' " Linehan said. "But in between drives, he was saying, 'Let's do this,' or, 'Let's use a timeout here.' Or, 'If we have one timeout, let's do this.' We were talking it through and preparing for what could happen. We didn't know we would end up having as much time as we ended up having. I think it says a lot about his preparation going into the game."
The Cowboys will have to lean on Romo's preparation more than ever for at least the next month. Bryant, who was so ebullient after the victory that he hobbled, shirtless, into the tunnel to greet his teammates, letting out a primal roar, will likely be out four to six weeks after foot surgery, Garrett said. The Cowboys have a difficult schedule to traverse without him. Next week, they face the Eagles in Philly, where getting a victory is now imperative if the Cowboys are to hold at bay the team that is likely to push them for the NFC East title until Bryant returns. Bryant will also likely miss games against the Falcons, Saintsand Patriots, and perhaps even a Nov. 1 game against the Seahawks.
For a team that sometimes looked undisciplined (committing a personal-foul penalty on the Giants' last touchdown drive) and mistake-prone (three turnovers led to 17 Giants points), Romo will have to be the ballast, particularly if the Cowboys are forced to engage in shootouts with the potent Eagles' offense.
"He has great poise," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "A great understanding of what he wants to do. His patience is outstanding. His command is outstanding. The defense gets on its heels. He does a really good job of making a play, making a play, making a play, not making a bad play."
It is a scouting report and an ending that even those who remember only the foibles of Romo's youth may have to finally expect.