ARLINGTON, Texas – On a night when Tony Romo broke Troy Aikman's career club record for touchdown passes, the Cowboys needed a perfect second half from their star quarterback – literally – to outlast the floundering Philadelphia Eagles and stay on the fringe of the NFC East and wild card chase.
Sunday's nationally televised 38-33 victory at Cowboys Stadium pushed Dallas (6-6) back to .500 and 1.5 games behind the first-place New York Giants (7-4), who play at Washington on Monday night.
As usual this season, the Cowboys had to overcome a sluggish start. Romo, aided by another breakout game from wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray's return from a sprained foot, dug them out.
The injury-depleted Eagles (3-9), losers of eight straight with head coach Andy Reid likely on his way out after 14 seasons, took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter on two touchdown runs by rookie running back Bryce Brown. It marked the 10th time in 12 games that a Cowboys opponent has scored first, and the fifth straight home game in which Dallas faced a double-digit deficit.
Romo's nearly flawless performance in the second half – 10-for-10 for 169 yards and three touchdown passes – sparked the Cowboys' comeback. He finished 22-of-27 for 303 yards and a 150.5 passer rating, with his first touchdown – a 23-yarder to Bryant early in the third quarter – passing Aikman on the franchise's all-time list (166).
"That (record) gets put aside when you're right in the middle of where we are with the playoff picture," Romo said. "We're playing for our playoff lives."
The Cowboys needed two more Romo touchdowns in the fourth quarter (No. 167 and 168) to outgun the Eagles and rookie quarterback Nick Foles, who started his third straight game for the injured Michael Vick (concussion).
The Eagles racked up 423 total yards against a patchwork Cowboys defense missing five original starters. Brown accounted for 183 yards, including 169 rushing, but his critical fumble with 3:50 remaining led to a 50-yard return for a touchdown by Morris Claiborne and a commanding 38-27 Cowboys lead.
Philadelphia's Damaris Johnson would somehow get through the Cowboys' punt coverage for a 98-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left, but Dallas recovered the ensuing onside kick.
Head coach Jason Garrett's team sure knows how to win ugly. During this rollercoaster season – they've won consecutive games only once – the Cowboys will do anything to stay relevant in the NFC race.
"Somehow, some way, we had to have more points than them at the end of this ball game," Garrett said. "There's a lot to clean up in this game. We'll learn from it, we'll put this one behind us and get ready for Cincinnati (next Sunday)."
Criticized for his game management at points this season, Garrett made a key decision late in the third quarter to challenge the spot on Murray's failed fourth-down run. The officials overturned the call, and three plays later Romo hit Miles Austin for a 27-yard touchdown to tie the game, 24-24.
The next series, Bryant (six catches for 98 yards) caught his second touchdown and the Cowboys took the lead for good, 31-27.
"Dez is growing before our eyes," Garrett said. "He's really becoming a more consistent player. He's such an explosive athlete."
Sacked three times, Romo dodged Eagles rushers throughout the game and got help from his skill players. Tight end Jason Witten led all receivers with 108 yards on six catches, while Murray rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown after missing the previous six games.
"We were able to get things going on the ground," Murray said, "and that opened up some things in the passing game."
At 6-6, the Cowboys are one of nine NFC teams with a .500 or better record. A Giants loss Monday night would help; Dallas' best chance at the playoffs is probably to catch New York in the NFC East.
This year's always-difficult December schedule includes games against AFC North foes Cincinnati (7-5) and Pittsburgh (7-5), the dangerous Saints (5-7) at home right before Christmas, and a rematch with Robert Griffin III and the Redskins in the finale.
Sunday's defensive struggles won't get it done in December. Team owner/general manager Jerry Jones knows it.
"I'm proud of the team, but we've really got to call on everybody … to do everything," Jones said. "Whether it's a coach, whether it's a player, whether it's me – we've got to do everything we can do to get these next four ballgames."
Said Romo: "We put ourselves here. We've got to figure out a way to play better ball."
Sunday night was just good enough.