Jason Garrett displayed the guts to go for it; punter Chris Jones ran it; Dez Bryant caught it; a piece of paper proved it; referee Gene Steratore called it.
And now Ezekiel Elliott is back, too.
The Cowboys are 8-6 after the most sickeningly entertaining game of the season as they defeated the Oakland Raiders 20-17.
“I love any game that will allow you to just stick it in the pile,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “and then come back and measure it with a piece of cigarette paper.”
Amen, Jerry — smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Only here in Oakland, it ain’t cigarette paper.
Never seen a game decided by a walk-off touchback, but the game’s final major play was appropriate to conclude a wild second half in what will likely be the Cowboys’ final trip to Oakland and its Black Hole for an NFL game.
The Cowboys finished 3-3 without Zeke because Raiders quarterback Derek Carr couldn’t hold on to the ball.
With the Cowboys leading 20-17, Carr scrambled from the Cowboys’ 8-yard line toward the goal line and he simply fumbled the ball into and out of the end zone. Give safety Jeff Heath credit for affecting Carr on the run.
“I was just trying to beat (Heath) to the corner. I was able to beat him, but as soon as I stuck the ball out and he pushed,” Carr said, “(the ball) just slipped out of my glove.”
By rule, the play is a touchback and the ball goes to the Cowboys.
Alas, the referee Sunday night was Gene Steratore. That Gene Steratore. His last Cowboys game was the infamous 2015 NFC divisional playoff game in Green Bay when Dez Bryant’s catch was reversed, and the Packers won.
While the “The Catch?” was overturned, the call on the field in Oakland was not, and the Cowboys won. Steratore made the right call.
Twice the Raiders were inside the red zone and came away with no points. Three Raiders touchdowns were called back by penalty; they lost 11 points in the process.
Speaking of process, credit to Coach Process for calling the game to win. If the Cowboys had lost Sunday night, the next two games were virtually irrelevant. As of right now, their playoff odds are not wonderful but they have a chance.
They also will have running back Ezekiel Elliott back from his six-game suspension on Christmas Eve for their game against the Seattle Seahawks at Jerry World. The Cowboys lost their first three without Zeke, and now are on a three-game winning streak.
The Cowboys still need to win out and reach 10 wins — and also considerable help from other NFC contenders — but the season of great hope survives one more week.
Thank punter Chris Jones for making this possible, too.
The game was tied at 10 with 4:37 remaining in the third quarter, and at that point the Cowboys were doing nothing offensively. The Cowboys had the ball at their own 24-yard line and faced a fourth-and-11 when Jones pulled off a surprise fake punt and ran the ball 24 yards for a game-altering, season-extending first down.
Give Garrett credit for manning up and making this call. Of course, had the call failed he should have been fired. Nonetheless, nine plays later, quarterback Dak Prescott scored on a short touchdown run for a 17-10 lead.
The lead vanished, and again Garrett had a hard decision to make with a little more than five minutes remaining. His offense faced a fourth-and-1 from their own 39-yard line, and again he coached like a guy knowing his team could not lose this game. Or a man secure in the knowledge that he will make $6 million in each of the next three years, guaranteed.
“We decided to win the game right there,” Garrett said. “You have to give yourself a chance to win right there and the guys embraced it.”
Dak ran/shoved for the first down, but out came the chains.
Steratore needed a piece of folded piece of paper to slip between the nose of the ball and the yard-marker to prove the Cowboys earned the first down.
“(The paper) was just for reaffirmation, but the decision was made on my visual looking at the ball touching that pole,” Steratore told a pool reporter.
Pictures show the ball didn’t go far enough, even with the added “cigarette paper.” So twice on Sunday night Steratore “nailed it” for the Cowboys.
“There was air between the ball and the stick,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “That’s short. OK. Goes the other way. Period.”
He’s right ... and it doesn’t matter. Welcome to the NFL where no one can define a catch, a penalty, or why a folded piece of paper is required to verify a first down that was not needed by the referee who said as much but used it anyway.
Dez said of Steratore, “I know he still thinks about that (call in Green Bay) when he goes to sleep at night. We got that W tonight, so I guess that replaces that. I guess nothing will replace that.”
Three plays after the paper trail, Dak found Dez for his second catch of the night, this one a 40-yarder down to the 5-yard line. Dez has not done a lot this season, but in each of the last two weeks he has produced game-changing plays.
Now, the Cowboys should have scored a touchdown on this drive but they were stopped at the 1 on multiple attempts.
On the ensuing possession, Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown dropped what would have been a pick-six interception to end the game on the Raiders’ final drive. After Brown’s drop, a fourth down, Carr heaved it deep and, naturally, rookie defensive back Jourdan Lewis was called for pass interference to advance the ball 55 yards to the Cowboys’ 15-yard line with 51 seconds to go.
All the Raiders needed to do was connect on a short field goal, and the game would go to overtime. But on third-and-3 inside the 10-yard line, Carr’s scramble turned into a scrambled mess.
The Cowboys had the touchback they never expected, but very much needed, and for the first time this season they won a close game.
Garrett went for it, and the Cowboys are still in it. And now Zeke is back, too.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof