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Monday, November 17, 2008
Cowboys dial up a season-saver

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

LANDOVER, Md. -- In a season that had gone horribly wrong, the Cowboys pinned their dwindling playoff hopes on the right arm -- and pinkie -- of quarterback Tony Romo. But on a bitter cold night at FedEx Field, it was running back Marion Barber and the defense that saved the Cowboys' season with a 14-10 victory in front of 90,830 white towel-waving fans.

 
 James Lang/US Presswire
 Dallas running back Marion Barber (24) celebrates a first down that seals the win against Washington.

The much-maligned offensive line that had done little to validate last season's Pro Bowl representation finally took over a game in the fourth quarter. Barber accounted for 83 yards alone in the final frame, and he took the pressure off Romo, who showed signs of rust after missing three games with the injury.

"I think he made some sort of record," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said of Barber. "He certainly was a catalyst tonight. When the game is on the line, he can always give it you -- and he did."

Barber finished with 24 carries for 114 yards, 69 of which came in the second half. And when Phillips faced a fourth-and-1 on the Redskins' 17-yard line with just over a minute to go in the game, he never hesitated. The Cowboys (6-4) simply fed the ball to Barber, who clinched the game by barreling down the right sideline.

"We looked up at the clock when it was fourth-and-1," center Andre Gurode said. "We just wanted to line up right there and end it. And fortunately, the coaches had confidence in us."

Romo looked like a quarterback trying to catch up with game speed in the first half. He had the Cowboys at the Washington 27-yard line when he threw a ball at least three yards behind Terrell Owens. Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who'd been signed to a free-agent contract last week, had an easy interception.

But on the Cowboys' game-winning drive, Romo relied on the improvisational skills that earned him a $30 million signing bonus last season. Facing third-and-7 at the Redskins' 33, Romo was flushed out of the pocket. But just before he crossed the line of scrimmage, he shoveled the ball to Miles Austin racing across the middle. The play gave the Cowboys a first down and set up Romo's 25-yard touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett on the next play.

"That's just one of those things he does," Austin said within earshot of Romo. "He and the other guy who plays for the Jets. I was running a slant, and I decided to break it off and dip under the linebacker. I was trying to burn a hole in his eyes."

Romo, wearing a flat cap he may have borrowed from Bagger Vance and a linen suit (post-Labor Day violation), walked around the locker room carrying an iPod boom box that was blaring Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle." He stopped long enough to say, "I missed playing ball."

As a P.R. representative pleaded for him to head to the interview room, Romo asked for a moment of privacy to savor the win. He pumped his fist twice and then went to meet with reporters.

"It was like a kid who was on punishment for four weeks," Gurode said of Romo. "And he finally got to come out and play."

The Cowboys and Redskins are now tied for second in the NFC East with 6-4 records. The Eagles are a half-game back after Sunday's tie with the Bengals. The Redskins actually have the easiest schedule remaining in the division, but the Cowboys have the benefit of hosting back-to-back games against the 49ers and Seahawks.

If they can get to 8-4 after the Thanksgiving Day game against Seattle, they'll have 10 days to prepare for a trip to Pittsburgh. After Sunday's game, owner Jerry Jones stood in the corner of the locker room with a look of relief on his face. He came out out last week and said the Cowboys could "absolutely" make the playoffs. At the time, though, it sounded like false optimism.

"We had at least three or four different junctures in that ballgame where a team with a lot less heart against a pretty hostile crowd could've tucked it in -- and we didn't do it," Jones said. "That was singularly the most important thing I saw."

 
 NFL.com Video
 Highlights of the Cowboys' 14-10 victory over the Redskins.

For more on Sunday's game, do not stop reading this column:

Newman returns in style: The last time these teams met, Santana Moss caught a 53-yard pass on an out-and-up move against Cowboys Pro Bowl cornerback Terence Newman. After that game, Newman was diagnosed with a sports hernia and had to undergo surgery. But instead of easing Newman into the fray, Phillips had him cover Moss one-on-one for much of the game.

Newman made the defensive play of the game when he broke underneath a short out route to Moss on the Redskins' first possession of the second half. The Redskins were facing third-and-2 at the Cowboys' 35-yard line and they already had a 10-7 lead. The Cowboys didn't immediately cash in, but Newman's play changed the complexion of the game.

He also broke up a pass to Moss when the Redskins went for it on fourth-and-4 with 6:46 left in the game. Moss, who has been a thorn in the Cowboys' side since 2005, finished with five catches for 29 yards.

In addition to Newman's fine play, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff combined for three sacks. Ratliff pointed out that the class of 2005 (Ware, Marcus Spears and Chris Canty
included) had never won at FedEx Field.

"This is the toughest division in football," Ratliff said. "We knew we had to come in here and stop the run. And Canty, Ware and Spears made it possible for me to get some one-on-one situations tonight."

Portis plays through the pain: Even though the team's flagship radio station officially declared him out three hours before the game, running back Clinton Portis took the field at 5:22 p.m. ET and decided he wanted to play. His presence gave the Redskins a lift on their first possession, but he wasn't as effective later in the game.

"I know [I'll be sore], but I'll worry about that when it gets here," Portis said. "I think that I had the opportunity to get out and help my teammates, so I needed to be out there."

Offensive line tired of losing money: In the days leading up to the Redskins game, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and offensive line coach Hudson Houck were desperate to cut down on some of the mental errors that had plagued the team. So they made players run after practice when they made mistakes. And the linemen had to pay fines when one of the coaches saw a mental error on film.

In Sunday's game, the Cowboys only had five penalties for 40 yards. Left tackle Flozell Adams and right tackle Marc Colombo each had a false start, but the line didn't commit a penalty in the fourth quarter.

On the game-winning drive early in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Roy Williams walked into the huddle, looked at each linemen and said, "This is what you live for, big fellas."

Gurode said that everybody in the huddle had a look of anticipation on their face in the fourth quarter. And as each run was called, they gained more and more confidence. It's way too soon to say this team's found its swagger, but for one quarter, it was there.