ARLINGTON, Texas –Brandon Carr smiled bashfully at the idea his overtime interception of Ben Roethlisberger was a difficult one.
"I just trusted myself … laid out and made the play. It may have looked hard, but it was as simple as that," Carr said of the play he capped by weaving 36-yards to set up Dan Bailey's game-winning field goal in overtime, as the Cowboys edged the Steelers 27-24 and wedged themselves into a three-way tie atop the NFC East. *Of course *the diving catch wasn't hard.
Hard was traveling to the funeral of a former Chiefs teammate last weekend, only to find out when it was over that he had lost a fellow Cowboy. Hard was getting through the last two weeks with little to no sleep.
The rest of the Cowboys have had plenty to deal with as well. Emotion and adrenaline may have carried them through last week's gut-check win at Cincinnati, but after attending a memorial service for practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown on Tuesday, the team was forced to go back to the grind, walking a high wire with no safety net, essentially, in their quest for a playoff berth. But when things got tough in Sunday's matchup against Pittsburgh, it was the Cowboys' steely resolve that won out.
"I'm just proud to be a part of it, the way our players and coaches and staff members just keep battling," head coach Jason Garrett said. "It's just fun to be around this group. There's a relentlessness to the group. There's an undeniable will about the group, and I think those are really, really important traits to have. It's never perfect, it's never pretty. … But guys kept battling within the units, and kept battling across the units and kept picking each other up. It just was impressive."
Bailey's 21-yard field goal, just 84 seconds into the extra period, was his seventh game-winner in less than two full seasons, and pushed the Cowboys' record to 8-6, the same as the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. The Cowboys control their own destiny with two games to play. If they win in seven days against New Orleans, they'll have a shot at a division crown in Washington on Dec. 30.
But if the playoffs ended today, tiebreakers would hand the East to Washington, while 8-6 Minnesota would go to the playoffs as the NFC's sixth wild card team, the eight-win Bears and Cowboys missing out.
Sunday's win was the Cowboys' fifth in their last six games, and assured them of at least equaling last season's .500 record, despite a rash of injuries that have affected the defense in particular. A hodgepodge of talent, it was that unit's ability to stiffen late Sunday that allowed the Cowboys to edge out the Steelers.
With the game tied at 24 and 1:47 to play in regulation Sunday, Pittsburgh took over possession at its own 20-yard line. They picked up 26 yards on an 11-yard pass, with a roughing the passer penalty tacked on, but Ben Roethlisberger was then sacked on back-to-back plays, brought down by Sean Lissemore and Anthony Spencer. Dwayne Harris returned the ensuing punt 39 yards to midfield, but the Steelers' top-ranked defense stood tall, surrendering only 6 yards, enough for Garrett to at least consider sending out Bailey for what would've been a 61-yard try.
"We had the wind," Garrett said. "We kind of looked at each other and we said, 'What do you think?' And we said, 'Probably not a good idea.'"
No matter the situation, the Cowboys never panicked on Sunday – not after the Steelers won the coin toss to start overtime, or when facing a fourth-and-inches decision from their own 21 at the two-minute warning, knowing a bad kick by a struggling punter would've set up Pittsburgh in optimal position. The Cowboys didn't flinch when the Steelers took a 24-17 lead early in the fourth, or rallied back from a 10-0 hole in the first half to tie the Cowboys.
In fact, they haven't balked all season, despite a 3-5 start, despite losing several of their best defensive players, despite six games missed by their star running back, DeMarco Murray, and most recently a broken finger suffered by their budding weapon at wide receiver, Dez Bryant. Following a week of speculation, including early reports that he would have season-ending surgery, Bryant started Sunday and played a key role, catching four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.
With Bryant perhaps slightly limited, Tony Romo looked to Miles Austin to pick up the slack, and completed seven passes to him for 79 yards. Murray picked up 81 yards on just 14 carries on the ground, and added four catches for 31 yards.
The group effort pushed the Cowboys record this month to 3-0, with more games ahead to prove they've shaken the ghosts of December swoons past.
"This is a different team," Murray said. "Last year was last year. Two years ago was two years ago. We've got different guys, and we're just trying to grow as players, grow as individuals, but come together as a team. The best teams, later on in the year, they get better."
Not only have the Cowboys seemed to improve in these late-season games, but they've shown an ability to get tougher over the course of individual games themselves.
"It's no mistake that we're here," Carr said. "Everything happens for a reason. This has been a journey for us, but it's built into our true testimony of being a Dallas Cowboy for the 2012 season – everything that we've been through, all the adversity, tragedies, ups and downs, he said, she said, all those things – and we still come out here each week and fight together and stay together for 60 minutes."