It took a little longer than expected.
But momentum finally found its way to the Dallas Cowboys before a Thanksgiving Day crowd of 87,572 at AT&T Stadium.
A 31-24 victory over the Oakland Raiders —thanks to 24 consecutive points that erased a 21-7 second-quarter deficit and the most complete second-half performance of the season — has the Cowboys’ train full of steam and ready for a December push to the playoffs.
It was the second victory for the Cowboys (7-5) in a span of four days, following Sunday’s 24-21 victory over the New York Giants.
The Cowboys are two games over .500 for the first time since December and have a half-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) for first place in the NFC East with four games to go.
“I think everything is starting to build at the right time,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “This team is molding to be the team we need to be. We’ve got to keep getting wins and keep this going forward.”
The Cowboys have 10 days off before the Dec. 9 matchup at the Chicago Bears, giving them time to heal and get some injured players back for the final month of the season.
The Cowboys, who are 4-0 against the NFC East, control their destiny for the division title and playoffs.
They are in this position because of a gutsy performance by quarterback Tony Romo, who played through a nasty stomach virus he contracted Wednesday night. The illness forced him to take IVs and other remedies Thursday morning.
“It was no big deal,” Romo said. “Guys play through a lot worse. It’s a virus. I took a couple of things. You try to get better.”
That was nothing compared to the 21-7 deficit that was ailing the Cowboys in the second quarter, thanks to a 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff by receiver Greg Jenkins and two 1-yard touchdown runs in the second quarter by running back Rashad Jennings.
But that’s when Romo and the Cowboys started feeling good and building momentum. Romo directed an eight-play, 73-yard scoring drive before the half, completing 4 of 7 passes before running back DeMarco Murray scored on a 4-yard run to cut the Raiders’ lead to 21-14 at halftime.
“That drive at the end of the half was as big as any drive in the game,” Romo said. “We were down 14, and they were getting the ball to start the second half. I was proud of the guys to come through.
“Today was an important game. It was a big win for us. We had to have that.”
The Cowboys simply took the game over in the second half, scoring 17 more points before the Raiders tacked on a late field goal.
Romo completed all 12 of his passes in the second half to finish the day 23-of-32 passing for 225 yards. His 4-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant tied the game at 21-21 in the third quarter.
“He’s just a gamer,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “He’s showed us that time and time again. He protected the ball. He played within himself. I was proud to see him take over.”
Romo was able to take over on offense because of a dominating performance on the ground by Murray and change-of-pace back Lance Dunbar. Murray rushed 17 times for 63 yards but had a career-high three touchdowns. Dunbar, who rushed 12 times for a career-high 82 yards, provided the real second-half spark. He had three carries for 59 yards, including a 45-yard run, on the game-tying drive in the third quarter.
“Anytime you can run the ball, it makes things efficient,” Romo said. “Having a 1-2 punch allows us to do some different things.”
The dominance on offense proved to be a boon for the Cowboys’ defense, which was only on the field for seven plays in the third quarter.
But the defense gets credit for shutting down the Raiders when they had the ball.
Oakland only had 120 yards and five first downs in the second half, with most of that coming after the Cowboys had built a 31-21 lead and were in control.
Ware credited an emotional Cowboys locker room at halftime for their improved play.
A team that has lived at the .500 mark for more of the decade and is 135-133 since 1997 didn’t want to go back to that win-one, lose-one mode that has been its identity.
“It was a lot of upset people in here,” Ware said. “We know how we should play. We said, ‘We can’t lose this game. If we lose this game, we are back to the old team … up and down.’ We are not wanting that this season.”
If the Cowboys keep this momentum going and continue to build when they return to play in Dec. 9, they won’t get the same results either and will finally make the playoffs after a three-year absence.