The Steelers came into this game with the top-ranked defense in the NFL. The Cowboys? Well, they had six of their original starters out of the lineup, plus their nickel cornerback, then lost yet another linebacker in the early stages of the game.
But as the old saying goes, the games aren't played on paper. Instead, it was the Dallas defense that came up big, leading the team to a thrilling 27-24 overtime victory in front of 95,595 raucous fans.
Despite the glaring differences between their defensive units, Dallas' patchwork side held their own throughout the contest, and when they needed it most, came up with three big sacks late in the fourth quarter. That was followed by a game-changing interception from Brandon Carr in the extra frame, which set up the winning field goal.
It was by no means easy. Twice the Steelers took the lead and three times the game was tied. But Dallas kept battling back.
Pittsburgh put up 388 total yards of offense and did not have a single penalty. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards on 24-of-40 passing with two touchdowns. His primary target was tight end Heath Miller, who totaled 92 yards on 7 catches, while wide receiver Mike Wallace had four catches for 95 yards.
But on the other side of the ball, the Cowboys were ready for the the mighty Steelers defense, racking up 415 total yards. Tony Romo was again outstanding, throwing for 341 yards on 30-of-42 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He connected with nine different players, Miles Austin leading the way with seven catches for 79 yards while Dez Bryant and Jason Witten did what they do best, each scoring a touchdown.
Even DeMarco Murray got into the action, rushing for 81 yards on 14 carries with a score. By comparison, the Steelers only ran for 69 yards as a team.
The Cowboys got on the board first with a 50-yard field goal from Dan Bailey on their opening possession of the game. This came after the Dallas defense nearly picked off Roethlisberger twice and then forced Pittsburgh to punt from its own 33-yard line.
Taking over at their 12, the Cowboys marched up field, Romo hitting Austin for 17 yards on their first snap. He also completed a 9-yard pass to Kevin Ogletree and with Murray rushing three times for 22 yards, the team reached the Steelers' 34-yard line. Romo then appeared to find Austin again on an 11-yard catch along the sideline, but Pittsburgh challenged the call and the officials ruled the receiver did not get both feet in bounds.
With that, the Cowboys' drive stalled, Bailey coming on shortly thereafter to split the uprights for his third field goal this season from at least 50 yards.
The same situation came back to bite Pittsburgh on their next series. On third-and-6 at the Cowboys 44-yard line, Roethlisberger appeared to hit Wallace on the right sideline for what appeared to be a 12-yard catch. But Dallas head coach Jason Garrett threw the challenge flag and the ruling was overturned, the Steelers forced to punt.
A trend that has plagued the Cowboys throughout this season – heck, for several seasons now – reared its ugly head again on the team's next possession. Starting at their own 20, Dallas moved down the field with relative ease, three consecutive passes to Austin going for a combined 39 yards with Murray then breaking out of the pack and scrambling around the left end for another 28.
But on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Murray got stuffed at the line of scrimmage, then in trying to work his way out of it, didn't secure the ball, and had it easily knocked loose by linebacker James Harrison. Defensive end Brett Keisel fell on it, the Cowboys' red zone troubles continuing with the Steelers taking over, the score still 3-0 as the final seconds of the first quarter ticked away.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh wasn't able to do anything against the Dallas defense, going a quick three-and-out, and once given the ball again, Romo and Co. went back on the move. Starting at their own 42-yard line, the quarterback went to James Hanna on consecutive snaps, the tight end collecting a combined 45 yards to move his team to the Steelers 17.
This time there were no red zone issues, as Romo faked a handoff to Murray to freeze the safeties, then lofted one over the top to a wide-open Witten for the easy score, the Cowboys taking a 10-0 lead.
Although the Dallas defense had looked strong through the first quarter-and-a-half of play, sooner or later the banged up unit was going to come under fire, and sure enough, Roethlisberger finally started making headway against the group, going from his own 20 all the way to the Cowboys 14-yard line. But there the defense held, forcing Shaun Suisham to come on for a 32-yarder, his field goal good to narrow the score to 10-3.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh was able to get going again on their next possession, although this time they found the end zone. The visitors next drive came after Dallas went penalty, timeout, penalty, delay of game to face a third-and-30. That quickly led to a punt, the Steelers starting at their own 27-yard line with just over two minutes left in the half.
On the ensuing possession, the Cowboys just couldn't contain Miller. The tight end caught passes of 13 and 6 yards during their march, then later on second-and-10 at the Cowboys 30-yard line, Roethlisberger scrambled in the pocket to buy plenty of time before finding a wide-open Miller on the right sideline, who scored the touchdown untouched to tie the game at 10-10 at the half.
During his scramble, Roethlisberger first faked a pass to Miller, which drew Anthony Spencer into no-man's land – should he go after the quarterback or continue to cover Miller? He wound up stuck in the middle, Miller getting behind him for the score.
Despite the way the second quarter came to a close, the Cowboys found their offense again after the break, going 80 yards on nine plays. At one point, they had dug themselves a hole, facing second-and-23 at their own 37-yard line. But Romo found Dwayne Harris for a big 18-yard play, then hit Cole Beasley on an out route to the right sideline for 8 more and the first down.
After then finding Austin for 13 yards, Romo executed a perfect play-action, hitting Bryant in the right corner of the end zone for a 24-yard score and the lead, 17-10.
The lead didn't last long, however. A curious squib kick by Bailey gave the Steelers possession on their own 40-yard line, and after a 2-yard loss, Roethlisberger took his second snap, waited in a comfortable pocket and then connected with a streaking Wallace down the middle for a big 60-yard gain to the Dallas 2. One play later and Pittsburgh had their points thanks to a charge off right guard by running back Jonathan Dwyer, the game 17-17.
With the fourth quarter getting underway during the Steelers' next drive, the visitors seemingly had their way with the weary Dallas defense. Running back Isaac Redman went around the left end for 22 yards with Roethlisberger then hitting Wallace for 20 and Jerricho Cotchery for 21 yards, down to the Dallas 15.
Three plays later, on third-and-2, Pittsburgh's quarterback found Andre Brown at the goal line, the receiver breaking the plane to retake the lead, 24-17.
But then the Cowboys caught a break. The Steelers were on their way to a huge punt return, having already broke free for 22 yards, but then Victor Butler reached out and stripped the ball from return man Antonio Brown, John Phillips falling on it to give Dallas possession at the Pittsburgh 44-yard line.
From there, Romo worked his team down to the 3-yard line, a 17-yard pass to Harris eating up most of that yardage. Unable to reach paydirt on their first two attempts, on third down, Romo handed off to Murray on a draw up the middle, the running back darting in virtually untouched to tie the score again, 24-24, with 6:55 remaining.
The Dallas defense was then able to stifle their antagonists. On Pittsburgh's next possession, DeMarcus Ware and Spencer collapsed the pocket and sacked Roethlisberger, forcing a punt. Then after the Cowboys were unable to do anything offensively, the Steelers got the ball back again, this time with 1:47 left in the game.
And again, the Dallas defense answered, sacking Roethlisberger twice, once by Sean Lissemore and the second by Spencer. That eventually led to another punt, and this time the return man Harris broke free, running around the right end and up the sideline 39 yards, giving the Cowboys the ball at the Pittsburgh 49-yard line with 47 seconds left to play.
Unfortunately, Dallas wasn't able to move the chains, and then with 32 seconds decided against a 61-yard field goal and sent out the punter Brian Moorman instead. With his effort landing in the end zone, Pittsburgh got the ball at its own 20-yard line and Roethlisberger took a knee, sending the game into overtime, the second time this season the Cowboys needed the extra frame.
And just like that, the defense came up big. With the Steelers winning the coin flip and taking the ball at the 20-yard line after downing it, Roethlisberger immediately tried to connect with Miller on the right sideline.
But Brandon Carr stepped dove in front of the receiver and picked off the pass, got to his feet and returned the ball 36 yards to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Romo simply kneed the ball to center it, giving Bailey a chip-shot field goal. The Steelers tried to ice him with a timeout, but no matter, he was good, Dallas winning in overtime, 27-24.
The game-winner was the seventh in Bailey's short career, tying Rafael Septien for the most in team history.
With the victory, the Cowboys moved into a tied for first place in the NFC East with an 8-6 record. The Giants lost earlier in the day to the Falcons and with the Redskins defeating the Browns, there is now a three-way logjam at the top of the division.
The Cowboys will now host the Saints next Sunday in what continues to be a must-win situation for their playoff hopes.