For the third consecutive season, the Dallas Cowboys will head into the final game in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East title and the playoffs.
After seeing their season come to disappointing endings in 2011 and 2012, the big question is whether things will be different in 2013.
For now, the Cowboys are beyond happy and relieved to have a chance to change their destiny after a frantic 24-23 comeback victory against the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
It was fourth-and-goal at the 10-yard line with 1:16 left in the game.
But it might as well have been fourth-and-the-season for the Cowboys, who had a strong contingent of fans among the crowd of 80,411 at FedEx Field.
Quarterback Tony Romo, hobbled by a back injury that will require an MRI on Monday, worked his special magic.
He scrambled to buy time and then connected with running back DeMarco Murray, who wiggled into the end zone.
The Cowboys’ much-maligned defense then forced a fourth-down Redskins incompletion to complete the victory, which was arguably the most important since coach Jason Garrett took over the team in 2010 because of everything at stake, including possibly his job.
“It was as big of a win as we’ve had … doing it when trailing by what we were in the fourth quarter,” Romo said. “Today, we felt like we were playing for everything. Next week will be the same thing, so we’ll go do it again.”
The victory against the rival Redskins (3-12) ended a two-game losing streak while sending the Cowboys (8-7) into Sunday’s final against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium in hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Kickoff has been moved from noon to 7:30 p.m. as part of the NFL’s flexible schedule format. The format, which debuted in 2006, ensures a primetime matchup with playoff implications in Week 17.
The Cowboys beat the Eagles 17-3 on Oct. 20.
“What was worrying me was, just for the most part, getting out of contention,” owner Jerry Jones said. “We are coming out of here with a whole lot more than we had when we got to Washington.”
The Cowboys didn’t have a lot of momentum or confidence coming into Sunday’s game. After blowing a 23-point halftime lead in a 37-36 loss to the Green Bay Packers, in arguably the worst setback in franchise history, the Cowboys blew a 14-6 halftime lead to the Redskins.
Back-to-back turnovers — a fumble by fullback Tyler Clutts and an interception off Romo — and three Washington scoring drives put the Cowboys behind 23-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Making matters worse was the back injury that had Romo hobbling on one leg much of the second half.
A 25-yard field goal by Dan Bailey made it 23-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
Romo, who completed 17 of 27 pases for 227 yards with two touchdowns and the interception, got things started with a 17-yard pass to Terrance Williams. He followed with a 51-yarder to Williams when he bought time in the pocket and the rookie from Baylor slipped behind the defense.
A 17-yarder to Dez Bryant put the ball on the 4.
But Murray lost 9 yards on third-and-goal from the 1.
Romo, labeled as the goat in the Green Bay loss because of two fourth-quarter interceptions, became a hero again with his game-winning toss to Murray.
“I thought Tony did a great job buying time, seeing what the defense was giving him. I think our guys just collectively did a good job trying to find some holes,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Certainly, he found DeMarco. Tony’s been remarkable throughout his career being able to create a little time for himself, buy a little time for the receivers and he did it again. Certainly, the biggest play of the ballgame.”
It was the 23rd time Romo has rallied the Cowboys to a victory in the fourth quarter or overtime. He is the team’s all-time leader in that category, ahead of Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.
But the only stats critics associate with Romo is his 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games in the playoffs or the regular season since 2006. That includes losses to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins on the road in season finales the past two seasons.
After road losses to end the previous two seasons, this time the Cowboys will be playing the Eagles at home.
“I know in some ways we’ve gotten hit with the fact of losing the last couple of years in that final game,” Romo said. “But I think we’re the only team that keeps getting itself in position to win the NFC East every year. That’s a credit. That’s also a negative in the fact we didn’t do it the last couple of years. You just have to keep getting yourself there. When your team is good enough, you’ll knock down that door.”
Are they good enough?
“We played like it today,” Romo said.
They certainly did at the end of the game.
But can they do it again in next week’s regular-season finale?