OAKLAND, Calif. – Half expected late Sunday night for Al Michaels to take us back 37 years with 31 seconds remaining in Cowboys-Raiders here at the aging Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, with voodoo bouncing all around this place, to break out his signature call few will ever forget:
Do you believe in miracles?
You know Al, not sure if I did before Sunday night, but YES! I sure do now.
Maybe even in Santa Claus.
Come on, seriously, no other earthly way to explain Cowboys 20, Raiders 17.
No other way to explain the Cowboys winning their third consecutive game, pushing their record to 8-6, with still a pulse in this against-all-odds drive that began just three weeks ago, not even owning a winning record at the time (5-6), for one of those two NFC wild-card berths into the playoffs.
Why now, with just two games remaining, two games the Cowboys have to absolutely win – home against Seattle Christmas Eve and at NFC East champs and NFC-leading Philadelphia New Year's Eve – the Cowboys are tied with Seattle and Detroit for the seventh best NFC record for entry into the six-team tournament, just a half-game behind those Atlanta Falcons (8-5) playing at Tampa Bay Monday night.
Hey Bucs, any early Christmas presents are welcomed.
And with the wonder-kid, Ezekiel Elliott, returning from his six-game shameless NFL suspension at 10 o'clock Monday morning, no doubt revved up and ready to go, even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knowing "he'll energize the whole locker room," who knows how this budding fairytale trying to win five straight to end the season plays out.
Crazy man, just crazy, Jeff Heath reaffirming indeed "a crazy series of events."
Seriously, who the heck has ever heard of a walk-off touchback? Home runs, yes. Field goals, sure. Hail Marys, of course.
But a quarterback racing for the end zone from the 8-yard line, just more than a half-minute to play, down three, getting inside the 5 and deciding to not only dive for the goal line, but as he does so extend the ball to reach inside the pylon while getting hit from the side, then losing his grip on the ball that's now at the 1-yard line, and that sonofagun rolls just inside the pylon, over the goal line and out of bounds.
"My daughter (Charlotte) and son (Jerry Jr.) both hollered, 'That's a touchback,'" Jones said, and knowing "if so, we win the game."
I'll be, replays during a lengthy review explicitly assured the call on the field would stand,* touchback*, Cowboys ball at the 20-yard line. And the Cowboys couldn't kneel out the clock fast enough before someone back in New York changed their minds. I mean … OK, we'll let it go, but it still was a catch Dean Blandino.
But that play was just the last in a series of you-gotta-be-kidding-me occurrences on this cool night with a rowdy audience of 55,372 trying to wake up some of those Raiders just win baby echoes of days gone by. At times, you'd have thought we all had entered into The Twilight Zone.
Look, let's start the improbable here: The arm of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is hit as he's throwing, causing the ball to flutter harmlessly into the air, intercepted by Sean Smith and returned 22 yards for a touchdown, only for instant replay to show Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley barely grazed Smith's back, if not his dangling mouthpiece. So instead of the Raiders taking a 14-10 lead, the Cowboys defense, backed up to their own 22, hold the Raiders to a field goal, 10-10.
Let's move on. Who has the nerve on fourth-and-11 on your own 24-yard line in a third-quarter tied game to allow your punter to set sail running for the first down, as Cowboys punter Chris Jones did for 24 yards and the first down? Because had he not, that possession would have died before the Cowboys could score the TD to take a 17-10 lead. Or worse, if failed, would have set up a struggling Raiders offense for a layup score.
Then there is the loss of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Tyron Smith, he the protector of the blindside, likely having sprained his knee the latter part of the third quarter and never able to return. And we know what happened the last time the Cowboys were without Smith in two games during the three-game losing streak.
The Cowboys also gave up a deflating Derek Carr 32-yard scamper out of the pocket when it appeared they were going to get off the field on the third-and-6 at the Oakland 37. Nope, three plays later the Raiders scored a touchdown, cutting the Cowboys lead to 10-7.
Or this one, which probably takes the cake. With the game tied at 17, just 5:06 remaining, and the Cowboys facing a fourth-and-half-yard at their own 39, Garrett basically gambled the game, the Cowboys deciding to go for it with Dak's QB sneak. Don't make it and the Raiders would be like 5 yards away from potentially taking the lead, if only kicking a field goal.
Well, Dak appears to have picked up the first down, the same first on the previous play rejected by video replay when challenged by Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. Bring out the chains to measure what Dak thought was a bad spot in the first place.
"I was in his ear the whole time," Capt. Jason
Witten said of head referee Gene Steratore, by the way the same referee involved in Dez's no-catch in Green Bay that fateful 2014 playoff-ending day.
In the meantime, Dak was in Garrett's ear, telling him if the measurement came up short to challenge the spot, with Garrett telling him, "I got it."
Chains came out, stretched, stretched, and with the naked eye it was hard to tell if the tip of the ball was hitting the first-down stake. And just to make sure the ball was indeed even with the stake, Steratore pulls out a 5x7 index card, folds it in half and extends it parallel to the ground from the tip of the ball to the stake to be doubly sure it indeed is a first down.
"Didn't use the card to make the final decision," Steratore told the pool reporter, and continued to repeat himself like five times when the same questions kept being answered about five different ways. "The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done. My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole."
Consider the measurement reaffirmed.
That was one thing with the ball at the Cowboys 40 and 4:31 left to play. But how about this: To that point, Dez Bryant had just one catch for 19 yards. And to that point, both Dak and Dez claim the Raiders constantly kept doubling Dez, constantly playing a two-safety-high look, edging that safety to Dez's side of the field over the top, no matter where he lined up.
"I had told (Del Rio), 'Come on, let's play some football, a little one-on-one,'" Dez said with a smile. "Sean (Smith) told me they were not going to let me get out there today."
Well, what are the odds? On that drive saved by the hair of the Cowboys' chinny-chin-chin, facing second-and-7 from the Raiders 45, the Cowboys come to the line with a 9-route called for Dez. Dak looks over the defense and thinks to himself, "Damn, they're doing it now," meaning no safety help. "First time all night, first time."
Bingo, Dez leaps over Smith to haul in a 40-yard bomb, only his second catch all season for more than 20 yards, Cowboys sitting at the Raiders five, 2:21 left, ready to blow the Raiders' house down.
Now this, too, could have been a disaster. The Cowboys couldn't, failing on three plays to score what would have seemed to be the knockout touchdown. So on fourth-and-goal from the 1, after they had failed on third down from the 1, Garrett orders up a gimme field goal.
"We had to (kick it)," Garrett said. "You can't come away from that situation tied," had they gone for it on fourth down and failed.
Problem was, and here we go again, after Bailey drills the 19-yarder for the lead, the Cowboys left the Raiders 1:44.
Again, can't make this stuff up. The game once again is on the line, the Raiders facing a fourth and-10 at their own 30, just 1:01 left. And lo and behold, Carr unleashes basically a Hail Mary the play after Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown dropped what would have been a game-ending interception. I kid you not. He's got Michael Crabtree one-on-one with rookie Jourdan Lewis deep down field.
Flag. Interference. Raiders ball at the 15, only 51 seconds remaining. The Raiders at least have time for a game-tying field goal to send it into overtime, if nothing else. But darn, all that was on Carr's mind, knowing the 6-7 Raiders desperately needed a victory to remain in the AFC West title race, was winning the game right then and there with a touchdown.
So on third-and-3 from the 8-yard line, only 0:39 left, and Anthony Hitchens leaving the game with an injury, the Cowboys' pressure forced Carr out of the pocket. And when he set sail for the end zone, only Heath has a chance to prevent what would almost definitely have been – I think, judging from what had been taking place all night – the game-winning touchdown with 0:31 left.
"I could tell he was close to the end zone, and I had to keep him out," Heath said as he dived to push Carr as he was extending the football. "All I know, as soon as I hit him, I rolled over and I saw the ball rolling out of the side of the end zone. Right at that moment I knew that it was a fumble. I just didn't know if he had his knee down."
Holy-Moly, replays confirmed it sure did, first coming out of his hand before the ball broke the plane of the end zone, and then rolling out the side for the touchback when Carr already had the first down. And if he had just run out of bounds, the Raiders would have had the ball like at the 2- or 3-yard line and at least a field goal in their back pocket, but with a game-winning touchdown only a Marshawn Lynch plunge away.
You see what I mean about miracles?
Who, with even the most fertile of imaginations, would dare make this stuff up?
Well, who knows, Cowboys win, that's three straight. Playoff hopes still alive, though, not well. Have the equally 8-6 Seattle at AT&T Stadium next, the Seahawks having been slaughtered by the Los Angeles Rams earlier Sunday. Beat them and Seattle is out of it, as long as the drive to win five extends through the season finale on New Year's Eve in Philly.
And now with Zeke, the Cowboys' bundle of joy, ready to roll in at 10 a.m. sharp Monday, and from what we hear, in tip-top shape.
Hey, the way things have been going, this just might be, could be …
Hmmm, maybe Al should have amended his call Sunday night to:
Do you believe in destiny?