ARLINGTON, Texas –For the Cowboys on Sunday, there is only one consolation. Despite one of the most discouraging performances of the season, they won.
This time it was the other team beating themselves with penalties. And the Cowboys didn't give the game away with turnovers. It was better to win 23-20 in overtime than the alternative, of course, but as the Cowboys completed their first back-to-back victories in almost a year, there is little reason for optimism. The Cowboys were truly the equals of the now 2-8 Cleveland Browns, who pushed them deep into an overtime period before Dan Bailey kicked the Cowboys back to .500 on the year (5-5) with a 38-yard field goal.
"A Hall of Fame pitcher told me a long time ago, you've got to somehow win a game when you don't necessarily have your best stuff," an unapologetic Jason Garrett said afterward. "I don't think we had our best stuff today, but we found a way."
In actuality, the Cowboys haven't showed much of their best all season. They've beaten one team with a winning record, the Giants in the opener, and squeaked by in their other four wins. Still, they have a chance to climb above .500 in only four days, when they play Washington on Thanksgiving. The Redskins have never beaten the Cowboys in six tries on the holiday, but were impressive winners at Philadelphia on Sunday, as rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III threw four touchdowns. Should the Cowboys slip by Washington, they may have a chance to grab the lead in the NFC East when they take the field again 10 days later against the Eagles, their third home game in a row.
Of course, the Cowboys are just 2-2 in their own stadium this year. Sunday's win over Cleveland was a true testament of what the Cowboys have been in virtually all facets in 2012 – half good and half bad.
They were booed off the field to end the second quarter, having fallen behind 13-0 against one of the league's worst teams. With the front five having fits attempting to block Cleveland, the offense had produced just 68 yards at halftime, while the defense was dying a slow death against the Browns steady running game. Not until late in the third quarter did the Cowboys even get on the board, when Bailey hit his first of three field goals.
On their next offensive series, Tony Romo leaned heavily on Dez Bryant to drive the offense in position for a two-yard Felix Jones touchdown run. Romo then hit the third-year wide receiver for a 28-yard touchdown on the ninth play of the next Cowboys possession, giving Dallas its first lead of the game, improbable given how one-dimensional the offense had become. The Cowboys managed only 3.0 yards per carry on the day, and Romo dropped back to throw 57 times, taking seven sacks behind a makeshift offensive line that especially struggled after left tackle Tyron Smith was lost in the second quarter. The front five that played the majority of the game had never lined up together even in practice.
"It's difficult, just because it's the first time with the guys," said usual right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, who was starting for the first time in his career at center. "It just took some time to get used to playing with the guys next to you."
Even after the offensive line settled in, Sunday wasn't easy. An Anthony Spencer strip-sack of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden put the Cowboys in position to push their fourth quarter lead to at least seven points, but Romo fumbled the ball back to Cleveland two snaps later. The Browns drove the ball 64 yards, but the Cowboys made a goal-line stand after the two-minute warning to take over possession on downs. Cleveland used its timeouts and forced the Cowboys to punt the ball, then scored on a 17-yard Weeden-to-Benjamin Watson pass following a big return by Josh Cribbs and a horse collar penalty called against John Phillips.
Taking over with 1:07 to play, the Cowboys drove 66 yards to set up Bailey's game-tying field goal, with 40 yards coming on two of Cleveland's 12 penalties, including a 35-yard pass interference by cornerback Sheldon Brown against receiver Dwayne Harris.
Harris would come up a factor again later on, when after the teams traded possessions in overtime, he popped a 20-yard punt return. That set the Cowboys up for six plays that covered 28 yards to get Bailey in position for the fifth game-winning kick of his young career.
Few would have expected it to be so close, but in this NFL, such a game shouldn't be so surprising. At the same time the Cowboys were playing Sunday, just a few hundred miles south, the one-loss Houston Texans were pushed deep into overtime by an arguably worse team than Cleveland. The Jacksonville Jaguars hadn't held a lead in regulation all season entering Sunday, but gave the class of the AFC all they could handle.
"Our players in here know not to ever count one (a win) when playing an NFL team," owner Jerry Jones said. "We all saw the same game and we know how hard it was for us to win this game."