GLENDALE, Ariz. – The evening began with the Dallas Cowboys – players, coaches, staff and the Jones Family – locked arm in arm, taking a very discreet and symbolic knee while strung out along the numbers on their side before the field-covering American flag was unfurled for the national anthem, trying to express unity and equality for all as a team during this trying weekend.
And the Monday night nationally-televised game ended as it began, with the Cowboys taking a joyous knee as the clock expired on this 12-round, heavyweight bout of a football game.
The Decision: Cowboys 28, Cardinals 17.
Brother, was this ever a fight to the finish.
And it's a darn good thing the beginning of this game here at University of Phoenix Stadium did not begat the ending. Why, the Cowboys ran just three plays in the first quarter. Three now. They totaled all of 3 yards. They had the ball for all of 1 minute, 54 seconds in the quarter. And when they next touched the ball in the second quarter, again they went three and out, totaling all of 1 yard.
In the meantime, the Cardinals already had scored a touchdown, but only had a 7-0 lead thanks to Phil Dawson's missed 36-yard field goal. The Cowboys didn't rack up their first, first down until roughly the 8-minute mark of the second quarter.
All of this coming on the heels of that 42-17 loss to Denver the previous week. And I know what all you guys were thinking, 1-2 here we come. Bet the Twitter-verse was on fire.
"Obviously, we didn't start out the way we wanted to," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett severely understated.
Now, it's also a good thing in this game that the numbers didn't tell the story. The Cardinals (1-2) outgained the Cowboys by 59 yards, and it would have been grossly more had Carson Palmer not been sacked six times. They had seven more first downs. They converted 22 percent more of their third downs. They threw for 142 more gross yards and completed 16 more passes. And time of possession? Please. The Cards had the ball for 12:30 more.
Yet the Cowboys won. How in the world?
"One of the things we talk about all the time, it's the foundation of our entire program, is the word fight," Garrett said. "You just have to keep fighting. You have to keep battling. I thought our guys did that tonight individually, within units and then across units as a football team."
There is that word: FIGHT. The word on the T-shirts and sweatshirts Garrett passes out to the team and staff at the start of training camp. Corny, maybe. But look, this fight was the root of this victory, and why the Cowboys are 2-1, tied with the Redskins and Eagles for first place in the NFC East.
Look no further than Dak Prescott, keeping on that zone read at the Cardinals 10, and you could see it in his eyes, by golly, come hail or high water, I'm scoring, leaping through a gaggle of Cardinals from the three, and ending up doing a forward flip into the end zone to tie the game at 7 with 1:11 left in the half.
You think that didn't fire up this team?
"He's a damned good athlete and that was big for us to be able to somehow, someway complement some of the runs we were trying to get with that quarterback run: Get him out of the pocket, let him run, get him out of the pocket on some nakeds," Garrett said. "If you look back at this game, those were the big plays in the game. Again, I go back to that word fight. He just battled and battled and battled and, eventually, it cracked."
Then there is Dez Bryant. OK, only two catches for 12 yards. There was no way on that short little 3-yard catch at the 12 the Cardinals were going to keep him out of the end zone, either. He made Patrick Peterson miss. He made two more guys miss. And then he bulled his way inside the five, getting a huge assistant from Travis Frederick over the last critical yards to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead.
"It was understood, I swear it was understood, and I told them, if I touched the ball," Dez says of before that play unfolded, "I'm scoring. I swear, I said it."
Said Garret, "He's all about the fight."
Or Brice Butler, catching two balls for 90 yards, one a 37-yard leaping catch for a touchdown and another a 53-yarder to set up Ezekiel Elliott's 8-yard touchdown run to stretch a precarious Cowboys' four-point lead to 11 late in the fourth quarter. Both plays came thanks to Dak using his feet to get outside the pocket from those blitz-happy Cards.
Oh, and did I mention Ezekiel Elliott? That was some tough sledding in there to gain those 80 yards, that would have been 89 if he had not been swarmed under for a 9-yard loss on that near final possession while trying to run out the clock. But he kept banging away, didn't he, his 30-yard run the impetus to get this offense stuck basically in neutral going, and then slithering in for the knockout touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"The guy is a warrior," Garrett said of Zeke, accused of quitting on the Cowboys in Denver last week by the many know-it-alls.
And the defense? That's right, the defense, the one giving up 35 points to the Broncos last week. The one Palmer kept pummeling with haymakers, connecting on 11 completions of at least 15 yards.
Start with, yes, "War Daddy" Lawrence. That's right, DeMarcus Lawrence, finishing with three sacks – no misprint, THREE in one game. And to think last year's team leader … for the season … had six (Benson Mayowa).
And it wasn't just the sacks, giving him a league-leading 6.5 after three games. It was four tackles – three of those for losses – and six QB hits. Six now. And if not for illegal contact on Sean Lee, Lawrence would have had a four-sack game.
My gosh, Lee was all over the place, finishing with eight solo tackles, this defense holding Arizona to 129 fewer rushing yards (49) than the 178 the Cowboys gave up to Denver last week.
Maliek Collins pestered the Cardinals in the middle, recording two sacks, giving him now 2.5 in three games. But get this, too: The defense also hit Palmer 11 times and was credited with six tackles for losses.
This bunch just didn't get discouraged, demonstrating its fight there at the end when they held the Cardinals, who faced first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, out of the end zone with just 0:36 left in the game.
And let's remember, when veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick left the game cramping up – he needed two IVs – the Cowboys were out there mostly with second-year corner Anthony Brown, along with rookies Jourdan Lewis and safety Xavier Woods playing in the slot on the nickel. Good gosh, and that was Palmer, completing 13 passes to Larry Fitzgerald out there, the guy with the third-most career receptions in the NFL.
Just up and down the roster, talk about a team effort.
"First of all, I've never been more proud of an association with players, coaching staff, as I am this crew," owner Jerry Jones said. "About the middle of the second quarter, after the weekend and the week of having the controversy regarding the flag and regarding the overall league and players, and then be sitting there and having the Cardinals seemingly have their way with us in the second quarter, then to have this team and to have the coaches turn around, start making the plays, and having some good things happening and coming out here with a win was a special day."
Very special, especially coming off that worst loss since 2013 to the Broncos the previous game, coming off that first-quarter performance – heck that first-half performance when the Cowboys gained all of 57 yards – and then a mentally taxing couple of days trying to figure out, as a team, just how to treat the national anthem and the flag in a classy manner in lieu of the swirling protests provoked by the president calling protesting league players SOBs without sticking their heads in the sand.
Maybe Dez hit the nail on the head.
"One thing special about us, one bad play, one bad day, one bad game, we move on," he said in a nearly deserted locker room. "We don't let one bad thing affect us.
"We move on."
Boy, the Cowboys sure did. Moved on from the Broncos. Moved on from that first half. Moved on from the president "saying some dumb-ass (stuff)," in the words of Lawrence.
These guys sticking together, arm in arm to finish this fight.