. The irony of the Dallas Cowboys’ 20-17 heart-stomping, season-extending victory against the Oakland Raiders Sunday night is hard to ignore.
A Cowboys team that has been impacted by legal paperwork for much of the season during suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott’s protracted fight with the NFL in federal court fittingly had its season extended for Elliott’s return by a piece of paper
Arguably by a margin as slim as the team’s playoff hopes.
When NFL umpire Gene Steratore took out a piece of paper and stuck it between the football and the yardstick to determine whether quarterback Dak Prescott converted a sneak on fourth-and-1 with 4:31 remaining, incredulity ensued.
“No, I’ve never seen the referee pull out a card,” Prescott said. “That was interesting, but I felt like I got it. I felt like it wasn’t that close. We got it anyways so it doesn’t matter, but that was interesting.”
It was par for the course for a Cowboys season that has been far from typical, especially considering it was Steratore who overturned the famous Dez Bryant catch/no catch in the 2014 NFC divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. Fortune was not supposed to be on their side.
But he signaled first down and Prescott would soon throw a 40-yard pass to Bryant, setting up a 19-yard field goal from Dan Bailey to put the Cowboys ahead 20-17.
“When we settled for that field goal, I thought we were going to have a tough time keeping these guys out of here,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. “I know we all thought the same thing.
“I thought our guys hung in there and really played hard all game.”
That would not be the end.
This game and the season needed more drama.
A dropped interception by cornerback Anthony Brown and a 55-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Jourdan Lewis on a pass to receiver Michael Crabtree set the Raiders up for one final chance to steal the Cowboys’ joy.
But on third-and-3 on the Dallas 8 with 31 seconds left, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr desperately tried to run for the end zone.
He reached for the end zone and lost the ball as he was pushed in the back by safety Jeff Heath at the 1. The ball rolled through the end zone, resulting in a touchback that Steratore upheld on replay.
“Well certainly the end of the game, I’ve never experienced that play,” coach Jason Garrett said. “To have a walk-off touchback to end the ballgame, that hasn’t happened before. Real credit to Jeff Heath, he makes a hell of a play on that. Continue to scratch, continue to claw. It wasn’t our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there and I thought that play typified what we’re trying to instill in our football team. Him laying out, somehow, someway, not letting that guy get to the pylon and ultimately knocking the ball out. It was a hell of a play. It was an unbelievable game.”
It was the Cowboys’ third consecutive win and has them at 8-6 and still in the playoff chase with Elliott set to return to the team on Monday for the final two games, starting next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Cowboys, who lost the first three games of Elliott’s six-game absence, still must win out to have a chance at the playoffs.
And even then they will need the Detroit Lions (8-6) to lose a game and have the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) and/or Carolina Panthers (10-4) lose two games to gain a wild-card spot.
“Yeah, nothing has changed,” Prescott said. “Like I said, we know where we are. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to win, and that is what this team is about. We’re excited and we’re loving this matchup, or matchups. We’re loving the position we’re in, but it is what it is. We got ourselves here and we’re excited about next week. Just one at a time.”
None of that would have mattered if the Cowboys didn’t escape from Alcatraz, er Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum, with a victory no matter how slim or incredulous.
Prescott and the Cowboys didn’t play a great game, but they got it done when it mattered most, thanks to an old friend in Steratore.
Prescott passed for 212 yards and was intercepted twice.
But before his unforgettable sneak and 40-yard pass to Bryant, he had a 17-yard scramble and a 5-yard touchdown run to put the Cowboys up 17-10 after they blew a 10-0 halftime lead.
Credit Garrett for giving his team some momentum by calling a fake punt from Chris Jones, who shockingly ran 24 yards on fourth-and-11 from their own 24.
Carr led the Raiders right back down the field, going 53 yards in 10 plays and tying the game up again with a 2-yard pass to Crabtree.
But that only set up the final drama, which has the Cowboys heading home to an excited Elliott with their season still in play and their playoff hopes alive by the margin of a piece of paper or the 1 yard Carr came up short of the end zone before fumbling.
Jones will be meeting Elliott at the Cowboys headquarters at 10 a.m. Monday morning to get a full report. But he’s still tickled about the wild finish that has the Cowboys still in the playoff chase.
“Well, I love any game that will allow you to just stick it in the pile, and then come back and measure it with a piece of cigarette paper,” Jones said. “There’s many nuances of the game. But like you said, when you’re measuring with cigarette papers out there, and then the last game you’re having the debate of in bounds, out of bounds, and touchbacks. It just makes this game exciting. I don’t know that you can invent a lot of nuances. But I’m proud for these guys. We fought. We fought when we had the luxury of feeling good about ourselves for leading, then turning around and didn’t play as well. Oakland played well, and we came on back and got the win.”
Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr
Dal—FG Bailey 45, 4:56.
Dal—R.Smith 1 run (Bailey kick), 14:04.
Oak—Crabtree 2 pass from Carr (Tavecchio kick), 8:03.
Oak—FG Tavecchio 39, 6:14.
Dal—Prescott 5 run (Bailey kick), :45.
Oak—Crabtree 2 pass from Carr (Tavecchio kick), 10:35.
Dal—FG Bailey 19, 1:44.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Dallas, Morris 16-61, Prescott 6-32, C.Jones 1-24, R.Smith 7-13, Bryant 1-(minus 4). Oakland, Lynch 16-76, Carr 4-47, Washington 2-3, Patterson 1-(minus 4).
PASSING—Dallas, Prescott 18-27-2-212. Oakland, Carr 21-38-0-171.
RECEIVING—Dallas, Witten 4-47, R.Smith 3-21, Te.Williams 3-19, Bryant 2-59, Morris 2-0, Hanna 1-31, Beasley 1-15, K.Smith 1-12, N.Brown 1-8. Oakland, Crabtree 7-39, Roberts 3-52, Lynch 3-16, Richard 2-21, J.Cook 2-17, Washington 2-16, Patterson 1-7, L.Smith 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Oakland, Tavecchio 39.