We're going streaking! For the first time in many years, the Dallas Cowboys are on a roll. After gutting out a few wins against mediocre teams, the Cowboys have now claimed back-to-back victories against AFC playoff contenders. Anything can happen in the final two games of the season, but for now Dallas fans can revel in the fact that this team is still fighting with purpose.
We've seen the Cowboys in playoff contention several times over the past five years, but this year feels different somehow. Typically the Christmas holiday is marked by the slow trickle of momentum leaving the star-clad squad This year, they are picking up steam with each week, building their quality of play as the opponents become gradually more difficult. Yesterday's victory against a scrappy Steelers team was the best Cowboys team performance since week one, at it came at the perfect time. Observe with me and then let's do some awarding.[jump]
A Very Belated Season First: The Cowboys took a 10-0 lead at the beginning of the second quarter. Maybe not so surprisingly, this was the first time all year that they've had a double-digit lead in the first half. The result was clearly due to fantastic prep work by Jason Garrett and his coaching staff, but it could have also been from the fact that the Cowboys were playing in a road environment, as Steelers backers infiltrated the stadium in epidemic proportions.
Romo Dealing, Receivers Wheeling: While credit for this win is certainly deserved by the entire team, it would be foolish not to briefly focus on the play of Tony Romo and his ragtag corps of receivers. Romo put on a masterful show yesterday, completing over 70% of his passes and avoiding the turnover bug. It's clear that he's on a roll right now, and his targets are helping him out. Miles Austin carried the load early, then the deeper roster guys like James Hanna, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris added key receptions in the latter stages of the game. Dez Bryant's presence certainly attracted attention from the Steelers secondary, but his third quarter touchdown catch was huge.
An Uncomfortable Sideline Guest: Early in the game, the camera showed suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent on the Dallas sideline in street clothes. The appearance was ripped by the studio crew at halftime, and marked a very uncomfortable step for the Dallas organization following the unfortunate death of Jerry Brown as an apparent result of Brent's drunk driving. For a franchise that has a history of players bathing in the scorching waters of legal issues, the move to have Brent on the sideline seemed undisciplined.
Defensive Depth Tested ... Again: If there's one thing that's been more consistent than the mention of the art at Cowboys stadium, it's an injury on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Ernie Sims got dinged up early and left the game with a concussion, opening the door for Alex Albright, who excelled in the middle linebacker role. Albright's biggest moment came early in the second quarter, as he stopped a streaking Chris Rainey a yard shy of a first down on third and 4. The play would give the Cowboys outstanding field position on their next drive, which resulted in a touchdown.
In addition to Albright, the Cowboys got huge contributions out of bench guys like Victor Butler, Sean Lissemore and Marcus Spears. The fight showed by these role players allowed Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware the ability to stay fresh deeper into the game, which caused a significant impact.
Let's keep the good times rolling with some awards.
Defenders of the Century: TIE Anthony Spencer and Brandon Carr. When the pressure in the game was ratcheted up highest, these two guys came up with gigantic plays. On the Steelers' final two drives of regulation, Spencer came up with one and a half sacks of a seemingly invincible Ben Roethlisberger. Almost as important as the sacks themselves, it seemed that Spencer's play late in the game started to break the will of the Steelers, granting the Cowboys a huge dose of momentum.
Even before his game-sealing interception in overtime, Brandon Carr made his contract look like a bargain this game. He bodied-up on the speedy Steelers receivers, knocking away passes and making big tackles. Then, for the second week in a row, Carr made a gigantic interception to turn the light of fortune back on the Cowboys. I found it odd that his momentum didn't carry him into the end zone, but to find fault with that would be like wishing you could get 6 toppings instead of 5 on a Papa John's Five Star Combo pizza.
Roy Williams Slow-Twitch Coverage Award: Danny McCray. If the game hadn't ended in the Cowboys favor, McCray would have been the brutally obvious goat of the day. When he wasn't a step slow tackling Heath Miller, he was doing his best impression of a mailbox as Mike Wallace torched him for a huge 60-yard reception. Most of the backups on the Dallas defense have outperformed expectations this year, but unfortunately McCray has been very average.
On a side note, my biggest nit to pick about McCray's performance was that his ineptitude led to non-stop "Heaaaath" chants in the first half. Steelers fans, what say we keep the annoying chant to guys with names that feature the long "u" sound, okay? Otherwise, you're just opening a giant can of worms. Perhaps the next time the Cowboys go to Pittsburgh, visiting fans can annoy the hosts by chanting "Dezzzzzzz", "Waaaaaare" or even "Daaaaaaaaan" during every field goal or kickoff.
Denny's Moons Over My Hammy Award: DeMarco Murray. In a year that has featured numerous crack-shots of various Cowboys players, perhaps the most censor-testing moment happened yesterday. Murray was forced to bury his hindquarters in the turf so that he could somehow conspicuously adjust his britches. By the time he was decent again, Twitter had already exploded with screenshots of the running back's rump.
Aside from his exhibitionism, DeMarco turned in a stellar game with only one glaring error. His fumble near the goal-line certainly hurt the Cowboys, but the fact that he outrushed the entire Steelers team and scored a key touchdown late cancelled out the early error. Even more encouraging was the fact that he looked exponentially healthier compared to recent weeks, as it seems that foot sprain may be nearly fully recovered. It's clear that the offense is a much different beast when he is giving the defense something extra to think about.
Playoff Picture: With two weeks to go, it appears the NFC East is the only option for playoff contention, with the Seahawks (9-5) and Bears (8-6) both leading the wild card race and owning head-to-head wins against the Cowboys. After this week's results, things have gotten very interesting within the division. As you probably know, Dallas, Washington and New York are all tied at 8-6. Each team now faces one team with scant playoff hope and one team still clawing for a shot. Here are the remaining opponents for each:
Dallas: New Orleans / @ Washington Washington: @ Philadelphia / Dallas New York: @ Baltimore / Philadelphia
If Dallas wins out, they're in. At the very least, they must beat Washington and hope for the Giants to drop at least one of their games. If the league ends up in a three-way tie and the Cowboys beat the Redskins, Dallas will emerge from the fray with the division title thanks to a great record against common opponents.
The Bountygate Saints come marching into Cowboys Stadium at noon next Sunday. New Orleans has been fairly mercurial this season, but they've been consistently weaker away from the confines of the Superdome. If the Cowboys can maintain their intensity from this Steelers contest, they should have a great shot to run their winning streak to four.