There are no must-wins in October.
But there is no question Sunday night’s 31-16 victory against Washington Redskins before 90,239 fans at AT&T Stadium was one the Dallas Cowboys needed very badly.
It snapped a two-game losing streak while keeping the Cowboys (3-3) in a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) atop the NFC East.
The Cowboys avoided their first three-game losing streak since 2010, when they lost five straight.
“It was an important game for us at our place against a division rival and dangerous football team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It was a good team win for us in all three phases.”
That they did it while showing the character to bounce back from the previous Sunday’s disheartening 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos and while overcoming the loss of running back DeMarco Murray and defensive end DeMarcus Ware to knee and quad injuries made it sweeter.
Of course, “next man up” has seemingly been the theme of the injury-prone Cowboys since the start of training camp.
The Redskins outgained the Cowboys 433-213. Quarterback Tony Romo passed for just 170 yards after throwing for more than 500 last week.
It was those replacements who set the tone for the victory.
Namely, defensive end Kyle Wilber, playing in the place of Ware, had a sack and forced fumble of quarterback Robert Griffin III with the score 24-16 in the fourth quarter.
Running back Joseph Randle, playing in the place of Murray, turned the Wilber sack and forced fumble into a 1-yard touchdown run.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who replaced an injured Morris Claiborne in Week 2 before taking over as the starter, ended all chances of a Redskins comeback with an interception in the end zone on the ensuing drive.
“We have had a few situations like this over the course of the season already where guys have to be ready,” Garrett said. “Guys have taken full advantage of it. They have had a big impact on the football team. Guys got banged up. Guys stepped up.”
And this all came after Dwayne Harris took the place of what had been a sputtering Cowboys offense for much of the day with big returns.
He followed an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, setting up a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Romo to rookie receiver Terrance Williams and a 21-9 lead.
“Dwayne did a fantastic job,” Garrett said. “He made difference-making plays in the game. Those are huge plays. What a great job for us.”
Romo didn’t have the big yards as he did a week ago, but the outcome was all that mattered.
“When you win it feels much better,” said Romo, whose touchdown pass to Williams in the back of the end zone while avoiding the rush was spectacular.
“He shows that ability on a consistent basis week in and week out,” Garrett said. “Tony avoided the guys to get himself righted to make that throw. It was a fantastic play.”
The Cowboys appeared to be in cruise control after the Harris return and the Williams touchdown
But a Redskins offense that had been unable to finish for much of the game finally got into the end zone late in the third quarter.
They went 71 yards on three plays in just 37 seconds, thanks to a 45-yard touchdown run by Alfred Morris to narrow the lead to 21-16.
The drive was aided by an 11-yard scramble by Griffin and a 15-yard late hit penalty on safety Barry Church.
A maligned Cowboys defense, which had allowed more 500 yards in each of the past two games against the San Diego Chargers and Broncos, proved to be ready for the challenge.
They forced the Redskins into a 49-yard field-goal attempt that was missed by Kai Forbath. And after the Cowboys made it 24-16 on a 30-yard field goal by Dan Bailey, Wilber and Scandrick ended the next two Redskins possession with turnovers.
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had two sacks and a tackle for loss to lead a strong defensive effort for much of the game. Griffin passed for 246 and rushed for 77. Morris had 81 yards on the ground. But the Redskins were forced to kick three field goals.
The Cowboys play at Philadelphia this Sunday in a battle for sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
“The division games are big,” Romo said. “We have a big game against Philly. It’s a tough place to play. We will be ready.”