IRVING, Texas - After being held in check for most of the first half, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves down 14-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs with time running down in the second quarter. To make matters worse, the Chiefs were at the Dallas nine, threatening to go up by 11 at halftime.
But as Chiefs quarterback Trent Green stepped back to throw on a second-and-goal with 1:16 left in the first half, blitzing ex-Chief Scott Fujita forced a fumble, his second of the season, and rookie defensive end Marcus Spears picked up the football, returning it 59 yards down the right sideline.
Three plays later, Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe hit tight end Jason Witten for a 26-yard touchdown reception to give the Cowboys their first lead in a game they eventually won, 31-28, at Texas Stadium.
Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil called Spears' return "the critical play in today's game," one the Cowboys desperately needed to win to remain in the thick of the NFC playoff race.
"It's alright if you fumble," Vermeil said, "but when you let the other team take it all the way up the field, that's when it becomes a problem. First we were going one way, then the ball was going the other way, and they took it all the way down the field."
It was the first fumble recovery of Spears' career, and the 59-yard return was the eighth-longest in Cowboys history. It was the longest fumble return for a Cowboy since defensive end Greg Ellis had a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in 1999.
Television cameras caught Spears on the sideline using an oxygen mask after the long return.
"I got lucky today and stumbled upon a fumble recovery," Spears said. "When you are a defensive lineman and you have to run a good 60 yards really fast, you have to get that extra boost to get refurbished."
Spears said the last time he ran that far and that fast was sprints during training camp, but his effort gave the Cowboys the boost they needed to climb back into the game and keep their shot for a playoff berth alive for another week.
The Cowboys' win keeps them percentage points ahead of Minnesota for the sixth, and final spot in the NFC playoff race. The Cowboys and Minnesota are deadlocked at 8-5, with Atlanta (7-5) playing New Orleans on Monday night.
But the conference record would be the tiebreaker, and the Cowboys currently have a better winning percentage in the NFC. The Cowboys currently are 6-3, with three games remaining while Minnesota, winners over St. Louis, is 7-4 with just an NFC game remaining against Chicago.
Even if Atlanta beats New Orleans, the Cowboys still would remain the sixth seed. The victory would push the Falcons' NFC record to 5-4.
Right now, Carolina technically would be the fifth seed, or first wild card. The Panthers and Tampa Bay are tied at 9-4, but the Bucs currently own the tie-breaker over Carolina for first place in the NFC South.
And nothing changed in the NFC East, the Cowboys still one game behind the New York Giants, 26-23 overtime winners at Philadelphia. The Giants are 9-4, but have to play two of the last three games on the road (Washington and Oakland).
Witten said nothing was working for the offense in the first half until the team broke out the flea-flicker, Barber pitching the ball back to Bledsoe who connected on a 71-yard touchdown pass to Terry Glenn.
It was the Cowboys' longest play of the season and the first of several trick plays the Cowboys attempted as they broke out all the stops to beat the Chiefs.
"It wasn't a question on whether I thought we could (be more aggressive on offense)," Parcells said. "I didn't think we had a choice. I knew they were going to be tough to stop. I knew we were going to have to get some points."
The Cowboys had another play up their sleeve for the end of the first half. After Kansas City failed to convert on a third-and-13, the Cowboys called time out with six seconds left to make the Chiefs attempt a punt. They then sent out punt returner Patrick Crayton in hopes of a short kick.
If Crayton had been able to fair catch the ball around midfield, he said the Cowboys would have attempted a free kick - line up for a field goal attempt in a kickoff formation in an untimed down.
But the punt flew over Crayton's head to the Dallas 36, and Chiefs cornerback Benny Sapp downed the ball to end the half.
The tricks continued deep into the game as well. Early in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-nine at the Chiefs 35, the Cowboys set up as if they would try a 53-yard field-goal attempt. But kicker Billy Cundiff pouched kicked the ball instead, only the have the punt roll into the end zone for a touchback.
Cowboys Catch Breaks
Sunday's 31-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs was the Cowboys' ninth game decided by six-or-fewer points this season, tying the team record set in 2002. And on the way to this victory, the Cowboys were the recipients of some fortunate bounces.
The most obvious break was Chiefs kicker Lawrence Tynes pushing a field goal wide right in the dying seconds, a kick that would have sent the Cowboys into overtime for the third time this season.
Tynes, now four of eight from 40-49 yards this season. The snap from deep snapping tight end Ed Perry was off, causing the rhythm of the kick to be broken, and Tynes to send a wobbly effort he pushed right.
Cowboys' opponents have now made only two field goals in their last six attempts, meaning they have missed as many field- goal attempts over the past five games as they had in the previous two seasons. Before this recent cold streak, opponents were 15-of-15 against the Cowboys this year.
The Cowboys were also fortunate three plays into the fourth quarter, when a pass bounced off of Dan Campbell's fingers and into the path of Chiefs corner Patrick Surtain, who had nothing but open field in front of him. A touchdown would have put the Chiefs up by 11.
But Surtain misplayed the ball as well, knocking it down to the ground, and Cowboys receiver Terry Glenn scored a touchdown two plays later to put the Cowboys ahead.
Johnson Runs Free
It was no secret that the Cowboys were going to have to contain Chiefs running back Larry Johnson if they wanted to beat Kansas City and keep pace in the NFC playoff race Sunday.
And while the Cowboys defense didn't exactly neutralize the Chiefs lead back, allowing him to gain 143 yards on 26 carries, they did contain him enough for the Cowboys offense to keep the game in hand.
Johnson's 143 yards were 14 more than the Cowboys total rushing yards on two less carries, and the most the defense has given up this season. Johnson also became the first player to score three touchdowns against the Cowboys in a single game since Philly's Terrell Owens did so last year.
"He's so powerful," Ellis said. "He's probably the most powerful running back in the league right now. He's not really elusive, but you think you've got him, and he ends up falling forward for more yards. That's the kind of back you want on your football team."
This was the first three-touchdown performance of Johnson's three-year career. His 143 yards gave him his sixth straight 100-yard game, a Chiefs record.
- Cowboys fullback Lousaka Polite was active Sunday after being scratched last week in favor of an extra offensive lineman. He made the most of the opportunity, nearly doubling his receiving yards for the 2005 season by catching three passes for 33 yards, both career highs.
- Cornerback Terence Newman briefly entered the game at wide receiver in the first half. Newman lined up on the right side on the first play of the second quarter. Looking for some more speed in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys also inserted speedy tailback Tyson Thompson as a wide receiver on the final offensive drive.
- Witten caught seven passes for a season-high 93 yards. His 26-yard touchdown catch at the end of the first half gave the Cowboys their first lead of the game.
- Rookie running back and kick returner Tyson Thompson moved up the list for rookie returners with his five returns for 130 yards against the Chiefs. This gives him 41 returns for 988 yards this season. That puts him second to James Dixon in kickoff returns and third to Dixon and Mel Renfro in kickoff-return yardage.
- Bledsoe moved up two spots in the NFL record books Sunday. His 22 completions give him 3,700 for his career, passing Fran Tarkenton (3,686) and Vinny Testaverde (3,688) for fifth on the all-time list. He also moved past former Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson into 15th place on the NFL's career touchdown pass list with three on Sunday for a career total of 241.
- Bledsoe also joined Warren Moon with the fourth-most 3,000-passing-yard seasons. With 332 yards against the Chiefs, Bledsoe now has 3,035 yards, the ninth 3,000-yard season of his career.
The Cowboys will make their annual holiday visits to local children's' hospitals on Monday. Players and cheerleaders will travel to five local hospitals . . . Inactive for the Cowboys were Drew Henson, Marcus Price, Cory Procter, Stephen Peterman, Sean Ryan, Eric Ogbogu and Thomas Johnson . . . Linebacker Mike Barrow was active for the game but did not play. This is the second week in a row Barrow has been active but did not step on the field. He has not played in the NFL since 2003 . . . The win over the Chiefs guarantees the Cowboys will finish at least .500 for the second time in the past six seasons.