One thing is for sure, it’s never easy with these Cowboys.
Dallas came into this game against Cleveland, the last place team in the AFC North division, expecting a win. On paper, at least, this had the makings for a blowout.
Instead, it turned into an exciting, back-and-forth affair that saw the Cowboys eventually come out on top in overtime, sending 81,936 fans home happy with a 23-20 victory. A win is a win, right?
In defeating the Browns, Dallas won back-to-back games for the first time since winning four straight last November. They also took advantage of the Giants’ bye week, the Cowboys improving their record to .500 (5-5), now just one game behind the 6-4 division leaders.
Where the Cowboys struggled against this upstart Browns group was in the trenches, as the visitors manhandled the Dallas front in the first half and kept Tony Romo scrambling throughout the game. But, the Cowboys came into this contest with Mackenzy Bernadeau, normally a guard, making his first career start at center, both Phil Costa and Ryan Cook out of the game with injuries. That brought in Derrick Dockery to slide into Bernadeau’s spot in the starting right guard position.
Then to make matters worse, left tackle Tyron Smith left the game early in the second quarter with an ankle injury, Jermey Parnell taking over his position. Needless to say, the patchwork group struggled against the Browns defensive front, as Romo was under siege for much of the day, and the running game did little, totaling only 63 yards.
But as the game wore on, Romo only got better, eventually finishing with 313 yards off of 35-of-50 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions. His primary target was Dez Bryant, who set career highs with 12 receptions and 145 yards to lead all receivers. Tight end Jason Witten shipped in seven catches for 51 yards while wideout Miles Austin added 58 yards on six catches.
On the other side of the ball. Cleveland’s underrated offensive line gave quarterback Brandon Weeden time in the pocket and opened holes for rookie running back Trent Richardson, who racked up 144 of yards from scrimmage, including 95 on the ground. Weeden finished with 210 yards passing and two touchdowns, both of which were caught by tight end Benjamin Watson. Josh Gordon and Greg Little finished with 53 yards receiving to lead the team.
Most of that production, though, came in the first half. The visitors let it be known early that they were here to play, as the first quarter was all Browns. In three possessions, the Cowboys managed only 36 yards of offense, failing to get past their own 39-yard line before punting.
On the other hand, Cleveland got something going on its second series of the game. Following a Josh Cribbs 20-yard punt return to the Cowboys’ 48-yard line, the Browns saw Richardson rush five times for 17 yards, plus catch another pass for seven more. Weeden, with plenty of time in the pocket, capped off the drive with a pass to Watson from 10 yards out for the score and a 7-0 lead.
That was then followed with another three points on the Browns’ next drive. Starting at their own 16, they rolled into the second quarter with Richardson again doing most of the heavy lifting. With Weeden camped out in the pocket, the running back drifted out of the backfield and took a swing pass 27 yards down the left sideline.
Three plays later, Gordon made a juggling catch to the Dallas 34, the visitors stopped after gaining one more yard. Kicker Phil Dawson then split the uprights on a 51-yard field goal, the Browns’ advantage now 10-0.
The troubles for Dallas only continued. On their next possession, the already overmatched offensive line was dealt another blow when the left tackle Smith left the game with his ankle injury. With penalties pushing them back to second-and-20, and a sack losing another 10 yards, the Cowboys punted away from their own 20.
Which Cleveland then followed with an 11-play, 47-yard drive that resulted in another Dawson field goal, this time from 47 yards out for a 13-0 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the half.
Dallas actually crossed midfield on their next possession, reaching the Cleveland 41-yard line, but on third-and-10, Browns defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard simply blew by right tackle Doug Free for the sack and a 10-yard loss. Out came the busy Brian Moorman for another punt.
And with that, the half soon came to an end, the Cowboys leaving the field to a smattering of boos, having been outgained in total yards, 177 to 68.
The second half, however, was a different story.
After the two teams traded possessions in the third quarter, Dallas finally put some points on the board. Starting at their own 20, the offense got a 13-yard reception from Bryant with Felix Jones then running for 12 more. Austin caught a pair of passes, his first of the game, for a combined 16 yards with a 15-yard facemask penalty then pushing the Cowboys to the Cleveland 23.
But from there, Romo was sacked for seven yards and Parnell was hit with a holding penalty to force a third-and-23. They made up 10 yards on a pass to Witten, which brought out Dan Bailey for a 44-yard field goal, the score now 13-3.
That little bit of momentum was quickly built upon on the Cowboys’ next series. Forcing the Browns to punt, Romo took over at his own 11 and proceeded to pick apart the Cleveland secondary. He connected with Bryant four times during the drive for a combined 54 yards, Kevin Ogletree adding 10 more plus earning a pass interference call.
Jones eventually punched it in from the 2-yard line with just over a minute gone in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys having narrowed the game to 13-10.
And then, Dallas nearly caught a big break. Last week against Philadelphia, the Cowboys took the lead for good when Dwayne Harris returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown.
This time around, on the ensuing kickoff, the Cowboys special teams appeared to have recovered a fumble by Cribbs, which would have given them the ball deep in Cleveland territory. But, the play was overturned by replay, the Browns maintaining possession.
But that, along with the previous touchdown, seemed to exhilarate the Cowboys defense, and they completely stymied the visitors, forcing another punt with Dallas getting the ball at its own 42-yard line.
Romo went back to work. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 44, he found fullback Lawrence Vickers for three yards to move the flags. He continued to spread the ball around with passes to Lance Dunbar, Witten and, of course, Bryant, a pass interference penalty then taking Dallas down to the Browns 19.
Although sacked on the next play, Romo came back and hit a streaking Bryant in the end zone for a 28-yard score, the Cowboys taking the lead, 17-13 with just under seven minutes remaining.
The Cowboys seemingly then had the game in hand. Weeden dropped back from his own 29, only to be sacked and stripped of the ball by Anthony Spencer, the linebacker also falling on the prize to give Dallas possession at the Cleveland 18.
But just two plays later, Romo himself was sacked by defensive lineman Frostee Rucker and also fumbled, teammate Craig Robertson coming up with it to give Cleveland back the ball at their 35-yard line.
Put right back out on the field, the Dallas defense almost let the game get away from them, as the Browns marched right down the field all the way to the Dallas 1-yard line. But on both third- and fourth-and goal, the Cowboys came up big, first stuffing an attempted dive over the top by Richardson before safety Gerald Sensabaugh defended a jump ball to tight end Jordan Cameron in the left corner of the end zone, the pass incomplete.
But the game wasn’t over yet. With Dallas unable to get the first down, Moorman was forced to punt out of his own end zone and hit a line drive boot to the return man Cribbs, who went around the right end for 21 yards, a horse collar penalty on John Phillips adding another 15 yards down to the Dallas 32.
And on the very next play, Weeden found Watson on a post route in the middle of the end zone for the touchdown and a 20-17 lead with 1:07 left in the game.
Starting at their own 20-yard line with one timeout remaining, the Cowboys got some much-needed help from their opponent. First, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the team 15 yards to the 39, then, after Romo and Austin connected for a 12-yard gain, Harris worked a 35-yard pass interference call on the Browns to give Dallas the ball at the Cleveland 14.
With 23 seconds on the clock, Romo scrambled up the middle for 9 yards, the team calling their final timeout. After a delay of game penalty and an incompletion, Baily came out for a 32-yard field goal, his kick good to tie the game at 20-20 with two seconds left.
The Cowboys won the coin flip and were able to cross midfield, but stalled out at the Cleveland 41. They chose to play the field position game and punted away, pinning the Browns on their 11-yard line.
The strategy paid off as the Dallas defense forced a three-and-out, Harris taking a booming 52-yard punt back 20 yards to the Cleveland 48-yard line.
A quick strike to Cole Beasley on the right sideline went for 9 yards with Dunbar then charging up the middle for seven more. An 8-yard connection to Austin pushed them to the Browns 24-yard line with another Dunbar running picking up three yards for another first down.
Now well within field goal range, Dallas kept things conservative. They tried one more 1-yard run by Dunbar to the 20-yard line before bringing out Bailey for the 38-yard attempt. His kick was good, Dallas taking the game, 23-20.
With the win, the Cowboys improved to 5-5, back at .500 and in the thick of the NFC East hunt. They’ll now wrap up this busy week by hosting the division-rival Redskins just four days from now for their annual Thanksgiving Day game.
Kurt Daniels | Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine