The defense didn’t force a takeaway yet again. But the special teams unit did.
With Tony Romo sidelined for the rest of the regular season, the Dallas Cowboys need game-changing plays from their defense — or special teams — to win.
And they made just enough in a 19-16 victory over the Washington Redskins to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
With 1:47 remaining in the game, the Cowboys were forced to punt to DeSean Jackson. But Jackson, trying to make something happen, coughed up the ball on a 7-yard loss. J.J. Wilcox was credited with forcing the fumble, and punter Chris Jones recovered it at the Washington 15.
Two plays later, the Cowboys scored a touchdown for a 16-9 lead and seemed destined for victory with 1:14 to go.
But it’s never that easy for this Cowboys group.
The Redskins returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards, and got another 15 tacked on for a face-mask penalty on Wilcox. Washington took full advantage, and Jackson redeemed himself to an extent by burning Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne for a 28-yard touchdown catch to tie the score at 16-all.
“Still feel like I had a decent game,” said Claiborne, who added that he wished the defense had been “in more of a zone” on the Jackson touchdown.
But the Cowboys had one final rally in them. Lucky Whitehead had a 46-yard kickoff return, which helped set up a game-winning field goal for Dan Bailey.
For the Cowboys defense, it was a relief to finally get a win when they played well enough despite the lack of takeaways. This is a unit that found itself on the losing end after holding Tampa Bay to 10 points in Week 10, and Seattle to 13 points in Week 8.
“The defense saved the day for us today,” owner Jerry Jones said. “When you have a heroic effort like our defense, it’s really special to be a part of a win like that.”
The unlikely win came on a night that saw second-year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence turn in the best performance of his young career.
Lawrence had two sacks within the first three plays of the game, and linebacker Sean Lee also got home on a blitz in the first quarter. The two-sack quarter for Lawrence gave him a team-leading five this season, and Lee notched his second sack of the season (and career).
Lawrence, Lee and linebacker Rolando McClain ranked as the highlights of the game for the Cowboys. Lee had a team-high 13 tackles, and McClain added 10.
For Lawrence, it was the first multi-sack game of his career and the best outing he’s had since the Cowboys beat the Lions in the wild-card round last year. On top of the two sacks, Lawrence also made a nice play on the Redskins’ first offensive series in the second half.
On third-and-1 from the Dallas 16, he went unblocked and tackled Matt Jones for a 2-yard loss. That forced the Redskins to settle for a field goal and a 6-3 lead.
But Lee might have had the game of the night. He was around the ball constantly, and was praised by Jones consistently in the locker room afterward.
“It was an outstanding effort led by Sean Lee,” Jones said.
Added Lee: “We played well. We’re still looking for those turnovers though. I think if we can continue to take another step and [keep] getting better, get a couple more turnovers, I think we can continue to win.”
In the end, the Redskins were held to 266 total yards of offense, and were 6-for-16 on third down. That is part of the reason they were ranked 25th in the league in offense going into the game.
But the Cowboys will take any positive they can get at this point.
“The defense played outstanding football tonight,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They did a great job really throughout the ball game of limiting them from scoring opportunities and forcing them to kick field goals at the end of drives and a number of different things.
“I thought we were really positive on the defensive end.”