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Spagnola: Who Would Have Ever Thought We Come In Praise Of The Defense

ARLINGTON, Texas – That's the Dallas Cowboys, against all odds, all season long.

          Fall behind by 14 in the first quarter? Forget about it.

          Gone down 13 with one and a half quarters to play? Forget about it.

          Miss a 41-yard field goal, the shortest non-blocked miss by Dan Bailey since a 35-yarder in the third game of the 2013 season? Forget about it.

          Tony Romo getting sacked a season-high six times? Forget about it.

          Dez Bryant only three catches, DeMarco Murray only 75 yards rushing – a 3.9-yard average? Forget about it.

          And rookie DeMarcus Lawrence suffering a brain cramp when recovering a fumble with 2:00 left that would have sealed a victory for the Cowboys, only to fumble the ball away? Forget about it.

          Nothing, not any or all of this seems to demoralize this version of the Cowboys, nor does their history, a long list of previous regular-season and playoff failures. These are the latter-day Cowboys, the ones who make you go crazy instead of driving you crazy, as they did for 91,410 folks seemingly overdosing on five-hour energy drinks here at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.

          Yep, Cowboys 24, Lions 20. Somehow, someway, now bringing this improbable journey to Green Bay next Sunday for the their first playoff matchup with the Packers at Lambeau Field since the much-romanticized Ice Bowl in 1967.

          However did they do it?

          Or course, there were the usual suspects, Tony Romo playing his hiney off the second half, completing 11-of-15 passes for one touchdown and a 125.4 passer rating while getting sacked three of the six times in the game. Jason Witten, as clutch as ever, with five catches for 63 yards. Terrence Williams' two touchdown receptions, including the game-winner, his ninth and 10th of the season. Bailey recovering to hit a 51-yarder. Murray plowing in for his 14th rushing touchdown on a clutch fourth-and-goal run from the 1-yard line.

          But look, the Cowboys only scored 24 points, their fewest since putting up just 10 in the Thanksgiving Day loss to Philadelphia, and the second fewest they've won with this season, just four more than that 20-17 overtime victory over Houston. Why, the 24 they scored is 17.25 points fewer than they had averaged while running the table during the four-game month of December.

          They only scored seven points in the first half, the three in the opener against San Francisco and against Houston the only times they've totaled fewer this season in the opening two quarters. And on two of their four red-zone possessions, they scored just three points.

          So smoke this one in your pipe. The Cowboys actually won just their third game of the season while scoring fewer than 30 points.

          We come today to praise the defense, just as those Romans once did for Caesar.

          Hail to the Defense.

          Never thought I'd say that this season, only a year removed from the Cowboys turning in the worst defensive performance in franchise history, the third-worst defensive performance in NFL history and the absolute worst NFL defensive performance, no surprise, during the 2013 season.


          Oh, and we'd be remiss not to point out how these same Detroit Lions, a year ago at Ford Field, wiped out a 27-17 Cowboys' fourth quarter lead to win 31-30, ending up with a ridiculous 623 yards of total offense, Matthew Stafford with 488 passing yards and Calvin Johnson turning 14 catches into 329 receiving yards.

          But this time, after losing defensive backbone Rolando McClain to concussion-like symptoms at halftime, having to play Anthony Hitchens on a bum ankle after all, having placed Henry Melton on IR last week and with Tyrone Crawford playing despite an allergic reaction to shellfish causing him to miss Friday's practice, the Cowboys defense held the Lions, Stafford, Williams, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and Co. to just 20 points.

          Get outta here.

          "A couple of teams come out early and punch us in the mouth," safety Barry Church said, "but we've learned we have a strong chin. We are able to take that punch and keep rolling."

          Just think about this: The Lions had a 14-0 lead with 1:57 left in the first quarter. But for the next 46 minutes, 57 seconds, the Cowboys yielded only two field goals. Two, one at the end of the first half and the other with 8:41 left in the third quarter, staking the Lions to a 20-7 lead.

          Then … just slammed the door shut on the Lions, allowing the Cowboys to recover for their second-largest comeback in playoff history, spanning 31 games.


          Well, they have continued this trend of takeaways, having grabbed 12 during the four-game winning streak in December. They hit their average in this game, grabbing three more, an interception on a batted pass at the line of scrimmage and two sack-fumble recoveries in the fourth quarter.

           Look, I get it. Stafford passed for 323 yards, the fifth time they have allowed a 300-yard passing performance this season. But even with all those yards, Stafford finished with a modest 87.7 passer rating.

          And maybe this was the icing on this defensive performance. The Lions took over the ball at the 20, trailing 24-20 with 2:32 to play, and who of you would have bet your week's allowance that the Cowboys defense, the 19th-ranked defense in the NFL, would have prevented the Lions from driving for a 27-24 lead.

          Evidently Romo is one, saying he just knew the defense would record a save. Even after Lawrence prolonged what appeared would be the agony by fumbling away the fumble he had recovered, caused by Anthony Spencer's sack of Stafford, right back to the Lions at their 23 when just laying down on the field would have ended the game. Instead, Lions first down.

          And as if the rookie had been listening to Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett all season long, the thing about playing each play, going on to the next play, fighting to the finish, there was Lawrence eight plays later, on a fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 42 with 1:00 left to play, recording the first sack of his NFL career while forcing his first fumble of the season and recovering his second fumble to finally put an exclamation point on this Cowboys' first playoff victory since 2009, the last time they were in the playoffs, and just their second win since the 1996 postseason.

          "They've played like warriors all year," said Cowboys co-captain Jason Witten. "They just fight and play 100 miles per hour. They're a close group that's got a little chip on their shoulder. They kept us in the game against a good offense. They fought hard."

          Or, as previously mentioned of Romo, their hineys off, too.

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