When Dan Bailey's 40-yard field goal went through the uprights Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his players didn't know how to respond.
Even though the field goal as time expired gave the Cowboys a 20-19 comeback victory, keeping them in the thick of the playoff chase, the emotional reaction was more relief than joy after a tragic weekend like none other in franchise history.
The Cowboys played the game just one day after learning that one teammate, practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown, was killed in a one-car accident early Saturday morning, and another, nose tackle Josh Brent, was in jail facing a charge of intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher and linebacker DeMarcus Ware took turns parading Brown's No. 53 jersey around the field in remembrance of him.
But most players and coaches were still numb after dealing with a situation so much larger than a season-saving victory.
Cornerback Mike Jenkins said players were crying on the field during the game, tears in their eyes, voices cracking while calling plays.
Garrett called Brown's mother immediately afterward and told her they would be sending the family the game ball.
"This was a life situation, a real tragedy," Garrett said with tears welling in his eyes. "I think everybody had a flood of emotions over the last couple of days. I keep using the word numb because that is how we all feel. When it goes through and you think about how everybody fought, how everybody battled, you think about the young man we lost. You almost want to drop to your knees. There were a lot of hugs in the locker room. There was a lot of real emotion, raw emotion in the locker room.
"I thought we honored him as well as he could be honored. This is a day I'm never going to forget. It's a tragic day for all of us. I’m never going to forget how this football team came together and honored Jerry Brown and his family. We’ll continue to mourn his loss. We’ll continue to miss him and we’ll never forget about him."
The Cowboys will hold a memorial Tuesday for Brown, who joined the team's practice squad Oct. 24. They also plan on keeping Brent, who is out of jail on $500,000 bond, in their thoughts and prayers.
The victory was the Cowboys' second consecutive and fourth in the past five games to make them 7-6 on the season. They remain tied with Washington and one game behind the New York Giants (8-5) in the race for the NFC East title. They still have a chance at a wild-card spot.
The Cowboys know they must win their final three games against Pittsburgh (7-6) on Sunday, New Orleans (5-8) on Dec. 23 and at Washington on Dec. 30 to legitimize their postseason hopes.
That remains their larger focus, but on Sunday all they could think or talk about were Brown and Brent.
“The game was a respite to take their minds off something a lot more important and that’s the life of Jerry Brown,” owner Jerry Jones said. “Josh, all of our team is concerned for Josh and support him in every way that we can.”
For much of the game, the Cowboys had no rhythm on offense and they were just a patchwork unit on defense, considering they opened the game without five starters, including Brent, who was starting for the injured Jay Ratliff.
They lost cornerback Morris Claiborne in the third quarter because of a laceration to his face. And at times in the second half, they were without starter Anthony Spencer, putting seven backups on the field.
But the injury-riddled defense kept the Cowboys in the game. Cornerback Brandon Carr set up a touchdown in the first half with an interception and the unit forced the Bengals to kick four field goals, including three after they got inside the red zone.
Down 19-10 in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys got the comeback started with a sack from Ware. Quarterback Tony Romo turned that into an eight-play, 68-yard scoring drive, capped by a 27-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant.
A third-down sack by linebacker Anthony Spencer gave the ball to the offense for the game-winning field-goal drive.
“It was very emotional,” Jenkins said. “Every time you look, you look into someone's eyes and you see hurt. Every time you look up you see tears coming from somebody's eyes. People talking, trying to call the play, you hear it in their voice. We could have easily come out here and folded. We had a lot of motivation on the sideline that kept us going.
“We were out here playing for those boys. I doubt if they wanted us to come out here and fold.”
Romo said no one knew how to react after the win.
"It’s a roller coaster of emotion. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what’s wrong. I don't know what you're supposed to do or feel or whatever," Romo said. "I just know there are a lot of things that go in and out of your thought process of this last 24 to 36 hours. It consumes your thoughts."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.