Monday, September 19, 2011

Redemption: Dal 27, SF 24

Redemption is a beautiful thing. And Dallas grabbed handfuls of it with a 27-24 overtime win in San Francisco to improve to 1-1 this season. Despite a botched field goal, plenty of injuries, question-marked play calls, and facing the pressure of last week's last-game collapse to the Jets, the Cowboys found a way to rally from 1o down in the 4th quarter with everyone getting their own piece of redemption along the way.

Dallas got a crazy comeback win on the road, and it's not the first time Dallas has done so in the Tony Romo era. Buffalo in 2007 and Kansas City in 2009 each come to mind. There was also a game in which Dallas rallied from 10 points down to force overtime in Arizona in 2008, however Dallas lost on a blocked bunt in the extra period. Maybe the Cowboys found a little magic, the same time of magic the Jets used last week against Dallas. Redemption is sweet.

At the top of the list is Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. A week after everyone, myself included, put him as Reason No. 1 for the opening week loss in New York, Romo re-asserted himself as the leader of this football team. The QB led Dallas on a long opening drive that had all the elements a fan could ask for, except points (more on that later). He left the game with sore ribs -- and reports this morning indicate he has a pair of fractured ribs -- but after a pair of Jon Kitna turnovers, Romo forced himself back into the game to lead the Cowboys to a come-from-behind win.

Any thoughts of Kitna leading this team based on last year's second-half success combined with Romo's Week 1 struggles evaporated as Romo toughed out a painful rib injury. And his return to the game came only after the television audience was informed that the Cowboys quarterback would not return to the game. Not only did Dallas need that to save their season (starting 0-2 is a great way to miss to the playoffs unless you're one of the great dynasty teams -- and this isn't one of them), but Romo and other members of the team needed to prove themselves again.

Field goal kicker Dan Bailey also got himself cut and re-earned his roster spot all in the afternoon. Bailey missed a chip shot 22-yard field goal after a long Cowboys opening drive, an extra-point range kick. It's inexcusable to miss those distance kicks in high school games. In the NFL, it can and (unless you finish the game the way Bailey did) should cost you your job. Bailey lined up to kick a 48-yard field goal to force overtime with just enough time left in the game to get the kick away. I'd say my confidence level was on EMPTY. When he kicked the overtime winner from 19 yards, maybe that meter was on a 1/4 tank. When a kicker missed a 22-yard field goal, you aren't expecting him to make the game-tying and game-winning kicks. Baily did. Redemption.

Dallas put itself on the verge of 0-2 and the making of another depressing season. If the Cowboys lose that game -- and they did plenty to try -- where do you start with your frustrations? If not for Doug Free diving on a Miles Austin fumble on the second-to-last play of regulation, Dallas never gets a chance to kick that game-tying 48-yard field goal. I don't necessarily blame Austin for fumbling nearly as much as I question Head Coach Jason Garrett's decision to hand him the ball in the backfield for the first time that afternoon.

In overtime, Romo connected with Jesse Holley for a 77-yard pass that took the Cowboys down to the shadow of the goal line, setting up Bailey's 19-yard game-winning chip shot one play later. Holley is an interesting case. This is the same guy who is in the NFL because Michael Irvin felt like hosting a reality show where a player can earn an invite to an NFL training camp. If Romo has made the most of being an undrafted rookie free agent, Holley appears to be making the most of a reality TV show. And even after his long pass play where he appeared to have just felt the presence of God while the rest of America wasn't as sure he'd set up the winning kick (Bailey already missed from 22, and that kick wouldn't have been good from 19 either, Holley was still a more amicable reality star than anyone from Jersey Shore.

Holley had never caught a pass in the NFL before making three receptions during the crucial moments of the game. So maybe his "just met Jesus" actions on the sidelines after that catch were much more acceptable when you realize he can't exactly "act like he's been there before" because he hasn't. Not even close. The guy just won a football game in the NFL for the Cowboys. But hopefully next time he won't almost lose it. Holley doesn't have breakaway speed, which is why he was caught from behind on the long pass. Right as he was brought down, Holley was extending the football in the air from the eight yard line in. If he fumbles that ball any direction other than out of bounds ahead of the end zone, it's a disastrous play. San Francisco would get to take over on the 20 if the ball rolled out of the end zone. Instead, Holley holds on, and Dallas kicks the game winner. I'm happy for him -- how can you not be after watching how emotional of a play it was for him? -- but he needs to learn from that and NEVER expose the ball like that in the future.

On a day when Dez Bryant didn't dress for the game, Holley came up big late in the contest but Miles Austin had the biggest day of all Cowboys, catching nine passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns, including one score coming from Kitna. Austin and tight end Jason Witten (seven catches, 102 yards) led all receivers going over the century mark in yardage.

Witten and running back Felix Jones joined Romo playing hurt in a game that Dallas found a way to come back and win. I'm still not entirely sure how exactly, but I'm relatively certain that if not for a team as young and inexperienced as San Francisco, the Cowboys might not be so fortunate.

After Kitna threw his first interception, a pass into the heart of the end zone after Witten had broken off the route, Cowboys cornerback Alan Ball got the football back with an interception of Alex Smith, the only Cowboys takeaway on the day. Ball's pick set up a Dallas drive starting from the 49ers 18 yard line. Five plays later, Kitna found Austin to tie the game, 14-14, with 6:50 left in the third quarter. Dallas had been down 14-0 until their final drive the first half, where Austin broke free for a 53-yard score with just under two minutes left before intermission.

The Cowboys would again have to rally from a double-digit deficit. It's hard enough to do once in the NFL, but Kitna's second interception on a tipped ball over the middle set up a 49ers TD under a minute left in the 3rd quarter. Kitna tossed a pair of picks in the quarter, and Romo took over on the next Cowboys offensive possession. San Francisco got the ball back at the start of the 4th quarter and drove to the Cowboys 37 yard line where David Akers nailed a 55-yard field goal to make it 24-14. Two score game with 11:12 left on the clock.

The field goal was not without controversy, however, as Dallas' Keith Brooking was flagged for leverage, a 15-yard penalty that could have given the 49ers 1st and 10 on the Dallas 22-yard line. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh decided to keep the points on the board, a decision that seemed like the smart move at the time. You've just got up two scores on Dallas in the 4th quarter, and maybe it's harder to take a 55-yarder off the board compared to a 30-something yard (especially because the 15-yard penalty on a 30-something yarder puts your offense deep in the red zone).

Dallas answered the long kick with an 80-yard drive that culminated in a Romo-to-Austin touchdown to pull the Cowboys within three points, 24-21. But that TD pass came one play after Romo connected with the man who is trying to become the Bob Lilly successor as Mr. Cowboy, Jason Witten, on 4th and 5 from the San Francisco 34. The Cowboys passed on a chance to kick a 51-yard field goal, which seemed like a no-brainer based on Bailey's earlier 22-yard miss and David Buehler's struggles last year. Everyone in the world knew Romo was going to Witten, and the Cowboys still completed the pass.

The Rob Ryan defense stopped San Francisco after five plays, and Dallas got the ball back on their own 33 with 4:03 left in regulation trailing 24-21. Romo's first two passes of the drive went to Jesse Holley, and he dropped other short passes off to Austin and Demarco Murray. From 1st and 10 on the 49ers 36, Romo connected on a seven-yard pass to Austin, but Dallas then ran up the gut with Tashard Choice for one yard, and Austin was given an ill-advised handoff that Free saved with a fumble recovery. The Cowboys may be starting three young pups on the offensive line, and thank goodness Free, not one of the kids, was there to pounce on the ball. The Cowboys let the clock tick down to 0:04 before calling timeout and setting up Bailey's 48 yarder.

All is well in Dallas. Redemption shines down on the Cowboys this week. Monday night the team opens at home against division leader (yeah, that's weird) Washington. So yes, after the disaster in Week 1 and what appeared to be a game destined for a loss in Week 2, the Cowboys (1-1) will play the Redskins (2-1) with a chance to get out in front of the division next week. Still a long way to go this season, but it's much easier to feel good about the team's chances after the final 15 minutes in San Francisco.

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