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What we learned: Cowboys stay in NFC East hunt

Dan Bailey drilled a 54-yard field goal to give the Dallas Cowboys a 19-16 victory over the Washington Redskins on Monday night. Here's what you need to know:

  1. A 46-yard Lucky Whitehead kickoff return enabled the game-winning field goal, bailing the Cowboys out for poor clock management. DeSean Jackson's egregious punt-return fumble gave Dallas a chance to close out the game with a chip-shot field goal, but Darren McFadden found the end zone too quickly, allowing Jackson to atone with a 28-yard touchdown over Morris Claiborne with 49 seconds remaining. Following Whitehead's return, Matt Cassel needed only a pair of short passes to reach Bailey's range. The Redskins missed a prime opportunity to take command of the division. There is now a three-way tie atop the NFC East, with Dallas just a game behind.
  1. While it's tempting to decry the ineptitude of both offenses, the Cowboys' defense deserves credit for a stellar performance. DeMarcus Lawrence opened the game's first series with a pair of sacks and later stuffed Matt Jones for a loss on third-and-short. Linebacker Sean Lee was all over the field, racking up a dozen tackles and a sack of his own. For the seventh time in eight games without Tony Romo, the Cowboys were tied or in the lead in the fourth quarter. That's a testament to Rod Marinelli's defense.
  1. The Cowboys might be just a game out of first place, but only three teams have fewer wins at the season's three-quarter mark. Cassel has managed just two touchdown drives in his last nine quarters. One of those "drives" started on the opponents' 15-yard line. Dez Bryant was held without a catch until late in the third quarter. Darren McFadden has averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per carry over the past month. In other words, this victory doesn't alter the fact that the offense is dysfunctional.

Since Romo won the starting job in 2006, the Cowboys are 78-49 (.614) with him in the lineup and 7-16 (.304) without him. They have only themselves to blame for the dire straits on offense. Owner Jerry Jones emphasized the importance of a quality backup quarterback when he handed Kyle Orton a $5 million signing bonus in 2012. After the coaches spent the offseason convincing themselves that Brandon Weeden was the team's most improved player, Jones doubled down in September, raving that "you won't see a more gifted passer." For all of that hyperbole, Weeden was afforded just three starts before he was benched for an underwhelming Cassel -- and ultimately dumped a month later. If Jones believed his roster was strong enough to contend this season, he should have upgraded behind Romo. He knows better.

  1. Jason Witten became the second player this week to reach 1,000 career catches, joining Larry Fitzgerald. How impressive is Witten's feat? Among active tight ends, Antonio Gates (827) is the only one within 400 catches of Witten. Not bad for a player who began his college career as a defensive end.
  1. The Redskins wasted a solid effort from a defense that forced three fumbles and came through with an impressive goal-line stand in the middle of the fourth quarter. Although Cousins deserves credit for the game-tying touchdown drive in a one-minute drill, he and the offensive line spent much of the game overwhelmed by Marinelli's stunts and blitzes. With first place on the line versus a weaker opponent, the offense simply fell short. An impending free agent, Cousins has a four-game window to convince the Redskins that he's better than he showed on Monday night.
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