Peyton Manning did what he was expected to do. Thing is, Tony Romo could make the case that he did it even better.
A sold out crowd of 92,758 saw a game for the ages as the two quarterbacks traded blows like a pair of heavyweight prizefighters. And even though the Cowboys came up short against the Broncos, losing 51-48 on a last-second field goal, Romo seemingly outplayed the future Hall of Famer throughout the day.
Neither defense had an answer, though, as Manning racked up 414 yards on 33-of-42 passing, tossing four touchdowns and running for another with one interception. On the other hand, Romo was good on 25-of-36 for a team record 506 passing yards, throwing five touchdowns and one interception.
Unfortunately, Romo's one pick came at the most inopportune time, deep in his own territory with just over two minutes remaining in the game and the score tied at 48 all. The mistake sullied what was overall a brilliant performance for the Cowboys quarterback.
Romo was adept at spreading the ball around as eight different targets recorded a reception with the rookie Terrance Williams posting a career-high 151 yards on just four grabs, including his first career touchdown. Dez Bryant also had two touchdowns off six catches and 141 yards while tight end Jason Witten posted a team-high seven catches for 121 yards and a score.
For the day, Dallas earned 522 yards of total offense. But, defensively, they just couldn't do anything to stop the ever-dangerous Manning, the Broncos themselves posting 517 total yards of offense. Perfect coming into this day, Manning got help from a rushing attack that eclipsed the 100-yard mark, Knowshon Moreno slicing the Cowboys defense for 93 yards on the ground and another 57 through the air.
The Cowboys came out fast and furious in the first quarter with the home team taking the game's opening possession 79 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown. The offense kept Denver off balance with five pass plays, all of which were completed to five different receivers, and six rushes, running back DeMarco Murray picking up 15 yards.
Romo hit the rookie Williams for a 25-yard gain and connected with Witten for 14 more. He then bought time before lofting a beauty of pass to Bryant in the back of the end zone, the receiver just getting his feet in bounds for the score, Dallas taking a quick 7-0 lead.
Coming into this game, the Cowboys knew their defense would have to create some turnovers against the Manning-led Broncos, and they were able to do just that on Denver's first possession. Facing a third-and-4 at his own 26, Manning connected with Eric Decker for 19 yards, but the wideout was leveled by linebacker Ernie Sims, losing the football. Out from the scrum came Morris Claiborne with the fumble, the Cowboys set up in Broncos territory.
They then ate up more clock, needing seven plays before crossing the goal line, this time doing so on the ground as Murray barreled in from four yards out to give Dallas a 14-0 advantage.
Of course, any dreams of shutting out the Broncos high-powered offense were dashed soon enough. Manning threw a pass of 19 yards to tight end Julius Thomas before then connecting with Decker on a 57-yard bomb down to the Dallas 4-yard line. From there, a shuttle pass to Thomas capped a drive that took all of 50 seconds, Denver narrowing the score to 14-7. That marked the fifth scoring drive for the Broncos this season of less than one minute.
In the opinion of many, the best defense against Manning was to simply keep him off the field. And for the first quarter, the Cowboys did just that, dominating the time of possession with Denver's star having the ball in his hands for just 2:03 while the Dallas offense was on the field for 12:57. Unfortunately for Dallas, there were three more quarters to play.
Even as the clock rolled over into the second quarter, though, the Cowboys were on the move again, and worked their way from their own 20 all the way down to the Denver 3-yard line. But a false start penalty on left tackle Tyron Smith pushed them back 5 yards, then Romo, despite having more than enough time in the pocket, eventually was dropped for a 17-yard sack. With that, Dallas had to settle for a field goal, Dan Bailey good from 43 yards out to bump the Cowboys up to 17-7.
But as many teams have discovered when facing Manning and Co., field goals just won't cut it against the NFL's best offense. And sure enough, over the final 12 minutes of the second quarter, the Broncos scored 21 unanswered points to go on top 28-17.
After a six-play, 80-yard drive that saw Manning eventually connect with Decker from 1-yard out, the Broncos were handed a gift when safety Duke Ihenacho recovered a Bryant fumble at the Dallas 41-yard line. Six more plays later and Julius Thomas took a short pass from his quarterback and lumbered in from nine yards out, the Broncos grabbing their first lead.
A three-and-out by the Cowboys certainly didn't help, as Denver then took possession at their own 36 and quickly marched the length of the field for their third straight score. This time Manning faked a handoff inside, which caused the entire Dallas defense to collapse. Instead, the quarterback bootlegged around the left end, and jogged into the end zone all alone. The score was Manning's first rushing touchdown since Oct. 27, 2008 at Tennessee.
Thanks to a 38-yard completion to Williams, the Cowboys were able to get Bailey on the field for one more field goal attempt, the kicker good from 48 yards to go into the half at 28-20.
But again, in this game, field goals weren't going to cut it, and when the Broncos took the opening possession of the second half and marched right down the field in 12 plays, the Cowboys' hole got a little deeper. Manning completed his fourth touchdown pass, this one to Wes Welker, and the fifth score on the team's last five possessions to put Denver in front 35-20.
Give credit to Romo, though, for going blow-for-blow with Manning. On second-and-9 at his own 18-yard line, the Cowboys quarterback hit Williams in stride on a post pattern down the middle of the field, the rookie then racing 82 yards to the end zone for his first career score, the lead still a one-possession game, 35-27.
Keeping it there remained a problem, though. The Dallas defense could take some solace in the fact that they kept the Broncos out of the end zone. Of course, Denver put three points on the board on their next drive, courtesy of a 48-yard field goal by Matt Prater, the visitors still having yet to punt in the game.
Back-and-forth they went, as neither team could stop the other. Romo led his troops on an 80-yard drive, completing it just before the end of the third quarter with a 2-yard strike to Bryant on the left side of the end zone. Dallas went for the two-point conversion, but forced to scramble, Romo was corralled short of the goal line, 38-33.
And then the defense came up big again, Claiborne credited with another huge turnover, pulling down a Manning pass intended for Decker, the pick his first interception of the year.
Set up with field position at the Dallas 49, Romo threw back-to-back passes to Witten for 15 and 26 yards to move down to the Denver 10. Two plays later the pair connected for a third time on the drive, this time the tight end catching the pass in the end zone for the touchdown. Again, the Cowboys went for two, this time Romo drilling one into Williams for the conversion, Dallas taking the lead, 41-38.
Back it went to the Broncos, who so far in the game either put points on the board or turned the ball over. This time it was the former, although the Cowboys kept Denver out of the end zone, Prater hitting 50-yard field goal to tie the game at 41-41 with 9:37 left in the game.
But what was that about field goals not going to cut it? This time the tables were turned. Backed up with a third-and-6 from the Cowboys 17-yard line, Romo cut loose on a 79-yard bomb to Bryant down the left sideline, the receiver cutting back across midfield before being caught at the 4-yard line. The very next snap then saw Romo throw a little flare out to Beasley, who scampered in for the score. With the extra point, Dallas was back on top, 48-41.
Romo's 79-yard completion put him past 500 yards passing for the day, not only a career-high, but also a new Cowboys record. He broke the mark of 460 originally set by Don Meredith on Nov. 10, 1963 at San Francisco.
The Broncos certainly weren't done, as the Dallas defense, like it's counterparts on the Denver side could do little to stop the opposing offense. Manning worked his team the distance yet again, the only third down the team facing during the drive coming from the 2-yard line, which Moreno punched in to tie the score, 48-48 with 2:39 left in the game.
Dallas needed a score, and perhaps just as importantly, they needed to eat up the clock. Neither happened. [embedded_ad]
As has seemingly been his curse throughout his career, Romo threw an interception. After taking a sack, on second-and-16 from his own 14-yard line, he tried to thread a pass into tight end Gavin Escobar, only to have Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan dive in front to haul in the pick, Romo's first of the day.
Set up perfectly, Denver picked up a crucial first down, giving them first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, which then allowed them to run down the clock, the Cowboys having no time outs. Manning basically sat on the ball, taking a knee on second and third downs before Prater came out for a chip-shot, game-winning field goal – yes, ironically, in the end a field goal indeed the difference – the kick splitting the uprights from 28 yards out as time expired, the Broncos winning, 51-48. With the loss, Dallas fell to 2-3 on the year, and combined with an Eagles win today, are now tied for first in the NFC East. They'll play host to the rival Washington Redskins next in a primetime Sunday night game.