Mac Engel

It’s the defense, not Romo, that will carry the Cowboys

Tony Romo was not going to change the outcome on Sunday night; actually, that’s not true — the score might have been worse.

The Man himself, Jerry Jones, said late after the Cowboys’ game Sunday night that at no point did he think that his red-haired coach needed to put Romo in the game.

“That would need to be a definitive situation,” Jerry said.

And here is why Jerry feels this way: With Dak Prescott as the QB, it took until the second week of December for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys to lose their second game of the season. Pretty sure most of us saw their second loss of the season coming in the second week of the season.

The last time the Cowboys left Met Life Stadium in New Jersey they were answering for a defensive end who nearly assaulted an assistant coach on the sideline. But Greg Hardy is long gone, and on Sunday night the Cowboys’ locker room was far more upbeat.

The Cowboys, and their Hall of Fame quarterback, were due for a dud because even the good teams in the NFL are going to throw a few stinkers in a 16-game season. As good as the Cowboys have looked this season, there was no way they were going to win out with a rookie quarterback against decent teams.

The Cowboys don’t need Tony Romo to win a Super Bowl — what they need is their defense to do what it did on Sunday night against Eli Manning and the New York Giants in a 10-7 loss.

Weird things happen in the cold in December in the Meadowlands, such as Dan “I Don’t Miss” Bailey bonking a 55-yard field-goal try off the cross bar at the end of the first half. Or the Cowboys actually missing returner Lucky Whitehead, who was suspended by the team for one game, because they forced the Giants to punt 10 times.

Or Dez Bryant fumbling on his only catch of the game — late in the fourth quarter on a third-down play that would have given the Cowboys a rare first down, but instead effectively ended the night.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Bryant said. “I can’t believe it came out.”

As stunning as that was, watching the Cowboys’ defense carry its offense might have been the most surprising development of the entire evening. If the Cowboys are serious about this Super Bowl thing, the defense has to do more of what it has done in the past two games. And what happened on Sunday night should be the expectation — it’s in there.

“Even if the offense isn’t scoring a lot of points our defense has to play,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said.

It’s December, a time when football changes and the teams than could zip, pass and scoot up and down the field suddenly hit peaks, ridges and roadblocks.

The weather is colder, play-calling grows conservative, injuries mount, and defenses have a week’s worth of video footage to know what’s coming and when.

It was silly and unrealistic to expect the Cowboys to score 30 points a game all the way to Houston to reach the Super Bowl. At some point the defense had to do more than display the ability to bend, yield and be flexible.

The defense that played against the Minnesota Vikings in the previous game and now the Giants has to be norm, because we know this offense can’t score a touchdown every other possession.

Through the first 12 games of the season, the Cowboys had been carried by Dak, the offensive line and running back Zeke Elliott. They can’t be expected to be perfect, and the guys on the other side of the ball are called teammates for a reason.

Entering Sunday’s game, the Cowboys’ defense ranked 18th in the NFL, was tied for 26th in turnovers forced and tied for 23rd in sacks. All of their defensive statistics, and rankings, were good enough to get their offense beat.

And yet against the Giants the defense sacked quarterback Eli Manning three times, intercepted a pass, recovered two fumbles and held the Giants to 2.8 yards per rush. The Giants were also 2 of 14 on third downs, and gained just 260 yards.

This is rather pathetic, but the Cowboys forced their first defensive turnover since Oct. 30.

“I saw pressure — real pressure,” Jerry said. “Our defense played as well as I’ve seen it play all year. That’s encouraging.”

Call it a godsend, too.

What the Cowboys’ defense did against the Giants is unexpected, and it has to be good enough to win a game. They allowed only 10 points and lost.

That can’t happen again.

The only play they allowed of note was a Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. crossing-route pass late in the third quarter that he turned into a 61-yard catch and touchdown run against corner Brandon Carr. It was a good play, and a case of young, faster legs being able to run outrun an older defensive back.

Other than that one play, the defense continually gave the offense the ball — the only problem was for the first time they could not do a thing with it.

Weird things happen in the Meadowlands in the cold — prolific offenses can’t score, kickers who don’t miss bonk field goals, star receivers fumble, and average defenses play great.

The Cowboys can’t be expected to score 30 points a game, but their defense has shown it can be better than average. It will take that, rather than a Romo, to reach a Super Bowl.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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