ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Before they could #finishthefight, as their pugilistic hashtag has implored them to do all season, the Dallas Cowboys needed to peel themselves off the canvas and get a dose of smelling salts. The home team barely survived a standing eight count early in its wild-card matchup with the Detroit Lions, who charged to an early 14-0 lead, and never trailed until Tony Romo’s game-winning eight-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams with 2:32 left to play completed the comeback and gave the Cowboys the 24-20 victory. Afterward, in the golden penumbra of the second postseason victory of Romo’s 12-year career, and the club’s first playoff win since 2009, various Cowboys congratulated themselves for maintaining calm in the face of adversity.
There’s calm, and there’s comatose. Led by Ndamukong Suh, who is at once the league’s most villainous player and its most ferocious, least blockable defensive lineman, the Lions smacked Dallas around for most of the first half. The New Triplets, as the talented Romo, Dez Bryant and freshly crowned NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray are known, were erased for long stretches.
This game should be remembered for the resiliency of the Cowboys, who leaned on more anonymous heroes to complete this comeback. It came down to key plays from non-household names like Williams and sawed-off slot receiver Cole Beasley and DeMarcus Lawrence, a rookie defensive end out of Boise State whose sack-strip and fumble recovery extinguished Detroit’s hope -- even as it redeemed a slapstick gaffe he’d committed two minutes and 17 seconds earlier, on the same drive. After recovering a Matthew Stafford fumble, Lawrence attempted to get up and run, but was himself stripped. Why didn’t he just fall on the ball? "Just the energy, seeing the ball on the ground, knowing it’s right there. The emotion was too high for me at the moment," he explained. Did we mention he's a rookie?
Thanks to Lawrence's flub, the Lions kept the ball, down 24-20 but still very much alive with 2:10 to play and all of their timeouts.They had life. Had they rallied to win, Lawrence would’ve found goat horns awaiting in his locker.
He didn’t, thanks in large part to a play that happened earlier, before the Cowboys' game-winning drive, also known as what this game will be remembered for: the Disappearing Flag that toyed with the Lions’ hopes, like the age-old dollar-ball-on-a-string prank, before kneecapping their penultimate drive.
With Detroit on the march midway through the fourth quarter, intent on extending its 20-17 lead, Stafford threw to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was being defended -- and face guarded -- by Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, also a rookie. Back judge Lee Dyer threw his flag. Defensive interference was announced by referee Pete Morelli, who marked off the penalty, at which point the game went through the looking glass.
The zebras entered into a brief confabulation. Dyer was overruled. Head linesman Jerry Bergman believed “the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference,” Morelli told a pool reporter. (Among the millions who disagreed: Pettigrew, who said, “He pretty much ran through me.”)
There was no foul on the play, announced Morelli, who, with no further explanation, then lugged the ball back to the original line of scrimmage. Adding insult to that injury was that the Lions took a delay of game penalty rather than going for it on 4th-and-1, and Sam Martin’s subsequent punt turned out to be a shank of Jean van de Velde-ian proportions that netted out at … 10 yards.
That unexpectedly good field position helped Cowboys coach Jason Garrett find the courage to make the gutsiest call of the postseason so far. On 4th-and-six at the Detroit 42, trailing 20-17 with six minutes to play, Garrett pushed a big pile of chips to the middle of the table. Right there, he went for the win. And it paid off.
Romo was looking for tight end Jason Witten all the way, but Lions safety Isa Abdul Qudda jumped the route, cutting under the tight end, forcing the quarterback to pause one beat, waiting for Witten, one of the savviest tight ends in the game, to turn the route back inside. The play went for 21 yards.
Later, in a raucous Cowboys locker room, Romo crossed paths with Witten, the tight end returning from the showers, the quarterback en-route to his press conference. Beaming, Romo shouted to him, “When’s the last time we threw a turn-in on that route? Ages ago!”
Six snaps (and three penalties, two on the Lions) after that huge fourth-down conversion, enjoying cocoon-like protection, Romo found Williams crossing the back of the end zone. For the first time in this game, Dallas took the lead. While his Jones-Mahal erupted, TV viewers were treated to the obligatory shot of the high-fiving in the owner’s luxury suite, whose occupants included a pear-shaped, red-sweatered man who appeared at first glance to be Santa Claus in civilian clothes but was in fact New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Standing in his stall after the game, Witten’s voice grew a bit husky, his eyes, ever so slightly misty, as he weighed the magnitude of that fourth-down conversion:
“To show the confidence to go for it, for Tony to get that look and know I was going to … turn inside. Just a big play. You live for these moments.”
And those moments, he allowed, have been scarce for this team. “The last seven, eight years together, we’ve fought.” His voice trailed off.
"But that’s just how our team’s been all year. We have playmakers across the field: Beasley, Dez, Terrance, of course our running game."
The good news for Dallas is that when the marquee playmakers are having a rough day at the office -- two days after he made the All-Pro team, Murray toiled and scratched for 75 yards on 19 carries, plus a hard-earned, one-yard TD run -- these Cowboys find different ways to win.
They’ll be underdogs in Green Bay next Sunday. They don’t care. When they get Murray going, their ball control offense serves as an arm of the defense, keeping opposing offenses off the field. And when they don’t, such as on this night, they scramble for some other way to get it done. This wild-card win, marking the fourth time the Cowboys have overcome a double-digit deficit this season, further seals their identity as a room full of fighters.