EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Could you blame Tony Romo if he didn't want to come back here? After those bookend disasters that began and ended the 2011 Dallas season at MetLife Stadium?
First came the demoralizing 27-24 loss to the Jets in last year's opener on Sunday night, the game Romo gift-wrapped and gave away in the fourth quarter, setting the tone for a team that would go on to lose five games in which they led in the final 15 minutes, including three by at least double-digit advantages.
And then, in the final chapter of last season's ride on the Romo-coaster, that desultory 31-14 loss to the Giants in Week 17, which eliminated the 8-8 Cowboys and sent the New Yorkers on to the playoffs at 9-7, a launching point they used to their great benefit and glory.
Make no mistake, this first night of the 2012 NFL season was a huge litmus test for the hotly debated Dallas quarterback. He needed to confront the recent demons that have haunted him in this stadium and against these Giants, and he needed to prove that his third trip here in the span of a mere 17 regular-season games would be the charm. All that hung in the balance was the Cowboys' sense of self-respect in an NFC East rivalry that had grown lopsided of late, and perhaps Romo finally taking a vital step in erasing his reputation for not being able to win the biggest games, or get it done in crunch time.
What a resounding answer Romo provided: 22 of 29 passing, for 307 yards, with three scoring passes, one interception, and the Cowboys offense not being stopped on its final five drives, spanning the last 35 minutes of the game. Feeding off Romo's lead, as always, Dallas responded with an impressive 24-17 upset of the defending Super Bowl champions, stunning the Giants and a record crowd that was in the mood to celebrate.
Since the NFL turned this season-opening game into a home-field showcase and hang-the-banner type of event for the defending Super Bowl champs, no road team had ever spoiled the party, going 0-8 in the role of sacrificial lamb. But the Cowboys just made that little piece of history happen, and another surprising NFL season is off and running.
"What's worth even more to this team is it's fresh in our memory, leaving this locker room from when we were here (eight) months ago,'' said an exulting Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the visitor's locker room. "We gave it up (in Week 17), and then they went on and won a world championship. I'll say this again: I did a high-five when I saw this game on our schedule, knowing we were going to play them two times anyway. But it was let's start it off and get this, if we could, get this out of our mind and out of our throat and go forward.''
Out of the Cowboys' throat is an apt image, because any way you cut it, those twin losses in the Meadowlands, as well as Dallas' Week 14 late collapse at home against the Giants, were games that were choked away. The Cowboys would have been a playoff team with just one more victory in 2011, and the Giants' storybook run to the Super Bowl would have never unfolded.
But it's a new season, and the Cowboys and Romo just turned an important page, knowing that few gave them much hope of knocking off a Giants team that was known for playing with poise and pride and owning a recent psychological edge over their longtime division rivals. Hang around against Dallas and the Cowboys would find a way to beat themselves and give you the game. That was the rap Dallas carried into this game, and that was the rap Dallas dismissed with Wednesday night's outcome.
"We're judged by winning and losing, so the best thing is going on the road and getting a win,'' Romo said. "And not only a win, but it's against a division rival and obviously against the world champs. I don't know how many times teams go in and beat them in the first game of the year. It's a tough atmosphere, and a tough game, but our team grinded it out and did good.''
The Cowboys wouldn't have won this type of game last year, because when they needed to make that one play to put the game away, they routinely couldn't manage it. The situation couldn't have been any more familiar to Dallas than it was with 2:11 left in this one, with the Cowboys up by seven points and facing a third-and-10 situation from their 26. Convert and they could run out the clock and improve to 1-0 as they face a daunting trip to Seattle in Week 2. Fail to convert and Eli Manning would once again have the ball in his hands, with time enough to tie the game and eventually beat Dallas yet again.
But this time, Romo and the Cowboys wouldn't let it happen. This time Romo coolly found Dallas' new star receiver, Kevin Olgetree, for 13 yards and a first down on a yet another slant pattern, ending the Giants' comeback and establishing the Cowboys as the early bully in the NFC East. Manning would have no opportunity to recreate his magic from Week 14 of last year, when he helped the Giants overcome a 12-point Cowboys lead in the final 5:41, winning the division's most pivotal game of the season, 37-34.
"We were in a similar type situation at home, where they were up the same type of score, and they went down and scored,'' Romo said. "But this year things were different. We executed on offense and defense when we needed to, and we put them in a hole. We were trying to keep the pedal down and not let up, because we know what kind of team they have over there.''
The Cowboys had actually converted that key first down on the play before the pass to Ogletree, but DeMarco Murray's 3-yard run had been wiped out by a Jason Witten holding penalty. No matter. The Cowboys now needed to pass to keep possession, so pass they did. In many ways, it was exactly the test this Dallas team needed to face in Week 1, in order to fully wipe away the fourth-quarter failures of last season.
"Absolutely, you want to be in that position,'' Romo said. "You want to have the game be on your shoulders. I thought all our guys stepped up and made the plays that had to be made. We've had some success in the past (in that situation), but there's been other times we haven't.''
Romo, of course, was far from the only reason the outcome was so different for Dallas this time around against the Giants. Olgetree was a revelation, contributing a game-high eight catches for 114 yards and the first two touchdowns of his three-year NFL career. He entered Thursday with just one previous game with more than 40 yards receiving, but produced the Cowboys' first touchdown of the season on a 10-yard catch late in the first half, and added a 40-yard scoring grab on the first Dallas possession of the second half. Those worries about who will replace the departed Laurent Robinson and become the Cowboys' No. 3 receiver? They're over.
With Dez Bryant catching four balls for 85 yards, and Miles Austin totaling four receptions for 73 yards with a 34-yard score, Cowboys receivers hung up a whopping 16 catches for 272 yards and three touchdowns, with each one of them having a reception of at least 34 yards. When you add in running back Murray's strong opening game of 20 carries for 131 yards (including a 48-yard burst that set up a touchdown), the Cowboys' playmakers all showed up early in 2012, giving Dallas hope that its era of underachievement is at an end.
But it was Romo who set the tone, bouncing back from an ugly interception to Giants linebacker Michael Boley in the second quarter, and not letting the past become prologue for a Cowboys team that has big aspirations this season. Dallas saw how far the Giants rode their sense of resiliency last year, and want to follow the same blueprint, winning games by winning the fourth quarter.
"I thought our guys did a really good job maintaining the right demeanor, and understanding that it's a 60-minute ball game,'' Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "They just kept playing. They didn't blink when things didn't go well for us, and when things did go well for us we just kept going, knowing that team was going to come back. I thought they showed mental toughness.''
Mental toughness certainly wasn't a Dallas trait in 2011. The Cowboys wilted late in games and late in the season, costing themselves a playoff berth. But this year, through Week 1 at least, looks completely different in Dallas. With Tony Romo and Co. answering the challenge of facing down the defending champion Giants, and returning to the scene of the crime in the Meadowlands, the Cowboys have replaced a bitter memory with a far happier one.