Coach Jason Garrett has preached all season to the Dallas Cowboys about seizing the moment and making the most of the opportunity
It’s been a message he’s preached since taking over the team midway through the 2010 season: Forget what happened before. Focus on the now and be the best you can be.
Fittingly, all those messages rang true in Sunday’s 24-20 comeback victory against the Detroit Lions before a crowd of 91,410 at AT&T Stadium.
A Cowboys team that has a history of playing its worst when it matters most showed toughness and resolve in rallying from a 14-0 deficit to score 24 of the final 30 points.
Quarterback Tony Romo eschewed his personal history of late-season disappointments by throwing two touchdown passes to Terrance Williams, including an 8-yarder to give the Cowboys the lead for good with 2:32 left in the game.
And a maligned defense that was considered the weak link before the season and had given up two touchdowns early in the game made the key plays to shut the Lions down in the fourth quarter.
It was capped by a sack and forced fumble by rookie DeMarcus Lawrence on Detroit’s final play, sending the Cowboys to the NFC Divisional Playoffs at the Green Bay Packers (12-4) at noon Sunday.
“It’s how we responded all year long,” Garrett said. “I’m just really proud to be a part of it. A lot of people say I’m proud of you. I’m just proud to be a part of it. You’ve got guys who fight the way they fight, who compete the way they compete.
“It’s fighting for your goals, fighting for each other. That was on display. A lot of adverse circumstances happened throughout the game. We responded the right way. Really proud of the guys, but we’ve got work to do to get ready for the next challenge.”
The Cowboys (13-4) earned their first playoff win since 2009 and their second since 1996.
The Lions (11-6), who still haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Cowboys following the 1991 regular season, will point to a controversial pass interference penalty midway through the fourth quarter when they were leading 20-17.
Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was flagged for pass interference on a third-and-1 pass from quarterback Matt Stafford to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. But officials reversed the call when the head linesman overruled the back judge, saying there was no contact on the play.
Replays showed contact, but referee Pete Morelli said face-guarding was ruled on the play and that face-guarding is not a foul in the professional football.
“Not good enough,” a disappointed Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Not good enough. I’m going to leave it at that. We still had our chances.”
The difference in the game was the Lions not making the most of their chances and the Cowboys seizing theirs.
Even after the penalty was wiped out, the Lions could have gone for it on fourth-and-1, but chose to punt.
What followed changed the course of the game.
Lions punter Sam Martin shanked a 10-yard punt, setting the Cowboys up at their own 41 with 8:10 left.
Four plays later, Garrett faced a fourth-and-6 with 6 minutes to go. Following a timeout, Romo connected with tight end Jason Witten for a 21-yard gain to continue a drive that ended with the go-ahead touchdown pass to Williams.
It was a prime example of the seize-the-day mentality that Garrett has coached with over the final month of the season. It was the second successful fourth-down call of the game, including a 1-yard run by DeMarco Murray in the third quarter to make the score 20-14.
“You can punt and then try to get a stop to get the ball back or your can say, ‘let’s go get the job done right,’” Garrett said. “What kept going through my mind was when you get a chance to go play the Masters, you don’t lay up. You go after it a little bit. A lot of confidence in the guys to go execute. They play football better than I swing a golf club. They did a helluva a job.”
In going for it, Garrett showed a lot of confidence in Witten, whom he called “one of the most reliable football players I have ever been around,” and Romo.
It was the latest chapter in what has been an image-altering season for the 34-year old quarterback, who completed 19 of 31 passes with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 114.0.
Romo was sacked a season-high six times, but he had no turnovers.
“You just have to stay in the moment and understand the game,” Romo said. “It doesn’t end after the first quarter, second quarter. You just have to keep calm. I’ve played enough games to understand that. Maybe I didn’t do that as well when I was younger.”
The trip to Green Bay will also be special because Romo grew up in Burlington, Wis,. as a Packers fan. But he and the Cowboys have loftier goals.
“Our aspirations weren’t just winning the division, as great as that was,” Romo said. “And it’s not just winning a playoff game, as great as that was. It was good and we are going to enjoy it. But there are bigger things. You don’t want to be watching games on TV. If you think you are the kind of player you think you can be, you should be playing in those games.”
The ultimate game on TV that Romo wants to play in is the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys took a step in that direction.
They ultimately got there because their defense gave up just six points in the second half after trailing 17-7 at halftime.
Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who caught 14 passes for 329 yards in a victory against the Cowboys last year, had five catches for 85 yards.
Credit the improved play of cornerback Brandon Carr and better schemes from coordinator Rod Marinelli.
But no one typified the Cowboys’ attitude and resolve more than the rookie Lawrence. He nearly cost the Cowboys a chance to win the game when he recovered a fumble following a sack by Anthony Spencer on the Lions’ final drive. But instead of falling on the ball, he fumbled it right back to keep Detroit’s hopes alive.
No one was more relieved by his strip sack and fumble recovery on the final play than Lawrence.
“I knew I had to go out there and make a play,” Lawrence said. “My emotions were so high when I picked up the ball. I lost it. I was like ‘God, please help me because I need to make this play right now. I can’t let my teammates down.’ I got another chance to make it happen.”
He and the Cowboys seized the moment.
Now it’s on to Green Bay.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760