- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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He has surely had more spectacular games in his career, but if you're a fan of the Dallas Cowboys the game Tony Romo played Saturday night was an absolute thing of beauty. Romo was 23-for-30 for 249 yards, three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown in a nearly uncontested 31-15 victory over a dead Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. He was efficient. He was in control. He was ruthless and reliable and made sure that the Cowboys put one of their easiest wins of the season in their pocket when they needed a win in the worst way.
The Cowboys move to 8-6, temporarily a half-game in front of New York pending the Giants' game Sunday afternoon. If the Giants win, Dallas will have done little Saturday night but hold serve. The victory doesn't dramatically help their playoff chances, but a loss would have damaged them severely. Romo deserves credit for making sure it was never a reasonable possibility.
He wasn't perfect, of course. No one is. The fumble on the first possession of the second half was careless. And I didn't think he made the wisest choice on his first touchdown throw to Miles Austin in traffic at the goal line. But Austin caught the ball for a touchdown, which made the throw look great. And Romo responded to the fumble by engineering a 12-play, seven-minute field-goal drive that denied the Bucs any shot at momentum.
Sure, Felix Jones had 108 rushing yards. But the Cowboys played ball-control all game, even when they were throwing it. Romo took no irresponsible shots downfield. He played completely under control. He took sacks when he should have, and he did a great job of extending plays with his feet until receivers got open. He completed passes to seven different targets, with no one making more than five catches and no receiver gaining more than Jason Witten's 77 yards. It was a clinic in levelheaded quarterback play, and while a Tampa Bay team that has now lost eight in a row might not have been much of a challenge, Romo's been playing like this against everyone lately. He has thrown 18 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past seven games, and the Cowboys are 5-2 in those games.
Talk that coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys don't trust Romo is ridiculous. Watching Romo on Saturday night, you saw a guy who was in complete control of his offense. A guy who was picking among fantastic targets and had the confidence and competence to find the right one. Heck, all three of his touchdown passes came from inside the 10-yard line. You don't keep throwing the ball from the 8 and 9 if you don't trust your quarterback.
Romo's reputation is a tough one to shake, but he's done nothing wrong in the second half of this season. He is not the reason Dallas lost to Arizona and New York in the two games before this one. And as the Cowboys look ahead to their final two games of the season, knowing they win the division if they can win them both, they do so with a great deal of well-deserved confidence in their starting quarterback.
Some more observations from the Cowboys' Saturday night victory:
Jones looks great running the ball, and maybe more importantly Sammy Morris looks like a guy who can reasonably spell Jones and keep the Cowboys from having to overwork him during the next couple of weeks. We'll see how they perform against a defense that doesn't allow 5 yards per carry, but the signs from the run game were encouraging for the Cowboys.
I thought the defense was encouraging too, at least while DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff were in there. The unit pressured Josh Freeman and were able to run a lot of those moving, confusing fronts to rattle the Bucs' offense into mistakes. And I had no problem with Garrett holding Ware and Ratliff out in the second half to rest them and decrease the risk of further injury. That game was over at halftime, no matter how scared Cowboys' fans were about their team's second-half issues. And if it had become legitimately close, they could always have put Ware and Ratliff back in, right? I think the Cowboys managed that situation intelligently.
The difference between this game and the Detroit game (other than the vast differences between Detroit's offense and Tampa Bay's) was that, when Romo made the costly turnover right after halftime to give the other team points, he didn't make another. Sounds simple, but it's important. The way you recover from your mistakes says much more about you than whether or not you make one.
The sight of right tackle Tyron Smith on the ground at the end of the game had to be upsetting for Cowboys fans. He walked off on his own power and seemed fine, but Smith would be a devastating loss for an already-shaky line on which he's been far and away the best player. Smith has played tackle at an elite level this year, and would be irreplaceable.
Next up for Dallas is a crucial home game next Saturday against the Eagles, who beat them 34-7 in Philadelphia in Week 8.