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Clutch moments polish Stephen McGee

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Before Stephen McGee directed the Dallas Cowboys on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive Thursday against the Denver Broncos, he had a conversation about his second-quarter interception with Jon Kitna.

"He said there's three things he looks for in a quarterback," McGee said. "A, the quarterback has to be accurate and, B, see how the guy handles adversity."

McGee never got to the third point in the locker room after the game but the guess is it is "win the game."

It has not always looked pretty for McGee, but there is something about end-of-game situations that brings out the best in him. Thursday was a prime example of that.

The interception can be blamed on poor timing between wide receivers Kevin Ogletree and Jesse Holley. McGee also was responsible for a sack when he held the ball too long knowing the Broncos overloaded one side of the protection with a blitz. He was not necessarily accurate the entire night, either.

But trailing by seven points with 5:44 to play, McGee had to take the Cowboys 65 yards for a touchdown and he also knew there would be a two-point conversion play because overtime and preseason go together as well as Bill Maher and the Tea Party.

He completed 5 of 7 passes for 52 yards. He completed a 28-yarder to Martin Rucker on fourth-and-6 from the Denver 34. His next fourth-down completion came from the Denver 13 with 15 seconds to play to rookie wide receiver Dwayne Harris for a touchdown.

On the two-point conversion, he bought some time with his legs by rolling right and found Rucker for the winning points.

"We weren't exactly moving up and down the field on offense and we weren't moving it on his first couple of drives," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He hung in there."

The last time we saw McGee in action, he directed a game-winning drive at Philadelphia on Jan. 2 that ended with a 4-yard touchdown to Jason Witten with 55 seconds to play. On the drive, he completed 4 of 5 passes for 54 yards.

A week earlier on Christmas night at Arizona, filling in for an injured Kitna, he put the Cowboys in position to win with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin with 1:41 to play. But then David Buehler missed the point-after attempt and the defense allowed the Cardinals to answer with a winning field goal.

"Unfortunately we've not had any practice with the 'three' group in a two-minute situation in camp," McGee said. "I just feel like it's a time you've got to step up and make plays. The team's relying on you, the game's on the line. I think that's fun right there. Not to downplay any other situation; they're all important but I just feel those are fun."

As McGee attempts to move up the quarterback food chain, those moments will buy him time. Kitna, who turns 39 next month, remains the Cowboys' No. 2 quarterback but he is in the final year of his contract and understands retirement is not too far away.

McGee has to fit in where he can get in. That's the life of a No. 3 quarterback. He has admitted to some frustration during camp because he is working with rookies and untested players unfamiliar with the offense. Some plays look uglier than others because they don't know where they're going.

The evaluation of McGee can be skewed because what might look like a poor pass could be a poor route or missed blocking assignment.

In McGee's meeting room he can look at Kitna, Tony Romo, Wade Wilson and Garrett as examples of perseverance. None came in with much hope of lasting when they joined the NFL but all excelled when called upon.

So on what will probably be a forgettable August night whenever the Cowboys' season ends in 2011, for McGee it was as important a moment as he could have.

"He's got some moxie to him," tight end Jason Witten said. "I think obviously there a lot of plays he can correct, but it's hard to do what he did and he's done that consistently the last couple of years where he's stepped in and made plays. There's something to be said with the way he plays and competes and I'm proud of him. He's going to have a chance because of that."

McGee just doesn't know when the next chance will come.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.