CINCINNATI –As Dan Bailey's game-winning 40-yard field goal sailed through the uprights on Sunday, a rush of emotion flooded the Cowboys sideline. But the exhilaration was much different this time than in other nail-biting victories this year.
Crucial as the win was to their continued hope of reaching the playoffs, the death of teammate Jerry Brown cast a pall on the weekend. The 25-year-old practice squad linebacker was killed in an accident on Saturday morning when the car he was traveling in with friend and roommate Josh Brent flipped in Irving, Texas. Brent, the Cowboys' starting nose tackle for five games this season, was charged with intoxicated manslaughter and posted bail Sunday afternoon, according to local reports.
"You think everything," Tony Romo said after the victory, which allowed the Cowboys to keep pace with New York and Washington in the three-way NFC East race. "You think about those guys, you think about the situation. You think about the guys who have battled out there on the field to get a win. You think about their families. You think about the team and keeping our playoff chances alive. It's a roller coaster of emotions that go through. I don't know what's right and I don't know what's wrong.
"I don't know what you're supposed to feel or do, or whatever. There's a lot of things that kind of go in and out of your thought process over these last 24 or 36 hours."
Head coach Jason Garrett spoke to Jerry Brown's mother after the 20-19 win and told her she would receive the game ball. The team held a place for Brown's No. 53 jersey in the locker room and on the sidelines. Players said it served as an inspiration in what was one of the more improbable wins of the year.
Down 19-10 in the fourth quarter following three consecutive field goals by Cincinnati's Josh Brown, Romo connected with the largely silent Dez Bryant for a 27-yard touchdown over the middle of the field to bring the team within a field goal. After the Bengals offense stalled, the Cowboys got the ball back at their own 28-yard line with 3:44 to play.
DeMarco Murray touched the ball seven times on the ensuing 13-play drive, running four times and carrying three.
"We had a hard time running the football throughout the game," Jason Garrett said. "We mixed in some runs. Certainly in that situation, it's a pass situation … we felt it was important to maintain some balance there. I thought our line did a great job competing, and I thought DeMarco did a really good job running with the football."
The Bengals had burned through all three of their timeouts in the third quarter, and were powerless to stop the Cowboys from draining the clock after driving into field goal range. On a crucial third-and-one from the Bengals' 38-yard line just after the two-minute warning, Murray ran for three yards and a first down. Then on a third-and-five with 1:17 to play from the 30-yard line, he picked up a first down on a six-yard gain that needed to be reviewed.
After an incredibly challenging 59 minutes – the closest thing the team had to a respite in its hellish weekend – the Cowboys were in position to win the game on a field goal.
"It's just football at that point," Bailey said. "Everything else we've been dealing with is life. It's pretty simple, really – you just go out and kick it. As far as football goes, it's pretty easy to do compared to everything else going on."
It was Bailey's second field goal of the game, as he opened the scoring with a 37-yarder on the Cowboys' opening drive. Cincinnati's offense had no trouble in the early going, and responded by taking a 10-3 lead before the end of the first quarter. The Cowboys answered back after an interception and 37-yard return by Brandon Carr in the second period, tying the game on a one-yard plunge by Murray.
While Cincinnati moved the ball well throughout the game, the Cowboys defense continually stiffened despite dealing with repeated bumps and bruises to starting players. At one point in the second half, the unit was without seven of its opening day starters. On-target passes from quarterback Andy Dalton were repeatedly dropped by the Bengals receiving corps, playing a huge part in keeping the game close.
"They had a good game plan coming out," said linebacker Anthony Spencer, who ended Cincinnati's final drive with a crucial third-down sack. "We basically slowed ourselves down and just played our defense. It just shows the way that we work during practice, during the week. We practice hard and we practice harder because of each other."
Among those pushing the Cowboys' starters in practice for the last five weeks was Jerry Brown.
"He loved being part of our team and he showed it every day," Garrett said. "It's a real tragedy. All we asked our team last night was to understand as best they could what happened, and somehow channel the emotions they had into honoring Jerry today in their performance. And that's a hard thing to do. I think everyone in our organization who knew him is completely numb, and has been numb the last couple days.
"It was really, really challenging … coaches, players, everybody, we had to come together. The bonds that we have as teammates had to get stronger. They're really strong for Jerry Brown."