IRVING -- When Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett started harping on game situations back in training camp in San Antonio, it was likely met with a few rolled eyes from his players.
He would go over every detail of the final 2 minutes of a half and the game from an offensive, defensive and special teams perspective.
Garrett took it even further when the Cowboys got back to the team's Valley Ranch training complex at camp, installing scoreboards on the practice field so they could practice situations like it was an actual game.
Garrett's attitude about the details of game situations and learning how to finish games strongly in the fourth quarter has manifested itself on the field in the past two wins of what is a four-game winning streak for the NFC East-leading Cowboys.
"It's funny," nose tackle Jay Ratliff said. "During training camp we were working on game situations as far as winning games late or a close call by winning by a field goal. It's funny these situations are actually happening. We have been coming out on top. There was a method to the madness and we are all beginning to see it."
What the Cowboys (7-4) have seen are consecutive victories against Washington (27-24 in overtime) and Miami (20-19) by field goals on the last play of the game.
The Cowboys did not play their best in either game -- considering they won their previous two against Seattle and Buffalo by a combined score of 67-20.
But they made the plays down the stretch to secure the victories.
That in itself is a byproduct of Garrett's preseason focus on game situations and should be considered signs of progress for a Cowboys team that has found a way to lose games like that, not just in the past years, but earlier this season.
The Cowboys opened the season with five consecutive games decided by four points or fewer and also decided on the final drive of the game. They lost three of those contests, and all were the result of the Cowboys blowing leads in the fourth quarter because of turnovers or an inability to get stops.
"You have to learn how to finish," linebacker Bradie James said. "Those plays are the deciding plays that affect the outcome of the game. We have been on the other side of these type games so much that it's unbelievable."
The Cowboys were 5-6 dating to last season in games decided by four or fewer points before this current two-game winning streak.
That's why the Cowboys are not making any apologies for the close victories, and are looking at them as the stuff that leads to playoff success.
"It's good to see our team finish close games like that," safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "Those are good games going forward, especially if you are in a playoff race where you have the confidence you know how to close. It is signs of our team getting better. You can see our team growing together."
It's little wonder that Garrett looks back at the final moments of the Dolphins game like a proud parent. It certainly could have been another game that had gone the other way after the Cowboys were forced to punt in the fourth quarter, giving the ball back to the Dolphins and trailing 19-17 with 4:47 to go.
But the defense, which had struggled for much of the day, forced a three-and-out.
The Cowboys put receiver Dez Bryant back on punt returns for the first time in the game and he ripped off a 20-yarder to set up quarterback Tony Romo and the offense for the final 2:59.
A 23-yard completion from Romo to tight end Jason Witten got things started. The Cowboys then put the ball in the hands of running back DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for two more first downs to set up Dan Bailey's 28-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.
The Cowboys controlled the ball and the clock and didn't give the Dolphins a chance for a comeback.
"I think, certainly, practicing that helps us become more comfortable in those environments," Garrett said. "I thought we were poised and executed each of the three areas. We needed that."
What the Cowboys have also needed and have gotten in the process of learning how to finish games is a strong running game and a reliable kicker. The emergence of Murray and Bailey, both rookies, can't be overlooked.
Murray, who was a backup to start the season, has rushed for 761 yards in the past six games -- a team record for that span -- and is on pace to be the team's first 1,000-yard rusher since Julius Jones had 1,084 in 2006.
Bailey has made 26 consecutive field goals and 27 of 28 this season to gain the team's confidence and trust so much that defensive end Marcus Spears says he looks like he is kicking into an ocean.
"We've got a running game and a kicker," James said. "You can manage the game in the fourth quarter a lot better and not put it all on Romo where he feels he has the whole world on his back. That has made a difference in our ability to finish."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.