Those who would like to maintain that Tony Romo is some sort of "choker" through his career, despite his formidable late-game quarterback rating, and overall performances in December, will have a much tougher time forwarding that tired old story after the Dallas Cowboys rallied to a 24-20 win over the Detroit Lions to wrap up the NFL's wild-card round.
Romo had a rough first half, to be sure. The Cowboys trailed 17-7 at halftime, and that became a 20-7 deficit halfway through the 3rd quarter. He was off on several targets, frequently underthrew open receivers, and had issues holding the ball too long even late in the game. But he forged a comeback win against Detroit's outstanding defense with limited participation from his star teammates. Running back DeMarco Murray had 75 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, and Dez Bryant caught just three passes for 48 yards. But Romo threw two touchdown passes to receiver Terrance Williams, and managed to transcend an offensive line that had a great deal of difficulty adjusting to Detroit's well-timed blitzes.
"More than anything, it's trying to keep your poise," Romo said after the game of facing a Lions defense that pressured him ceaselessly. "That was the best defense we played all year by far, and they deserve a lot of credit -- they played awesome today."
Not awesome enough, as it turned out. Romo was fooled by Detroit's coverage looks early on, but he hung in and outlasted the Lions, finishing the day with 19 completions in 31 attempts for 293 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn't a blow-away performance, but it was enough, and the Cowboys are headed to Green Bay with a chance to advance further than they have since the mid-1990s.
As for the Lions, they'll spend the offseason wondering how they squandered a big lead to a team that went 4-4 at home in the regular season.
Some other quick thoughts:
1. Dallas' defense did its job
The narrative for the Cowboys' defense all season was pretty simple: outside of lineman Henry Melton (who was out of this game with an injury) and cornerback Brandon Carr (who has underperformed through most of the season), it's been a unit brilliantly coached by Rod Marinelli, and if you kept it on the field, you would wear it out. That seemed to be true in the first half, when the Lions beat the Cowboys 17:57 to 12:03 in time of possession, and Detroit held that 13-point lead in the third quarter. But as the game went on, the Cowboys stuck to their spacing concepts, got enough pressure on Matthew Stafford, and were helped by a couple of interesting calls (more on that in a minute). Yes, Detroit's defense was impressive for the most part, but it was Dallas' undermanned and seemingly unimpressive defense that stuck through adversity, as it has all season, and helped take the Cowboys to victory.
2. The good Matthew Stafford showed up... but it wasn't enough
The Lions' quarterback may have the most impressive arm in the NFL, but due to mechanical inconsistencies, he's had a feast-or-famine career to date. But outside of a tipped pass interception to start the second half, and the fumble that ended the game (big qualifiers, we know), Stafford was impressive -- for the most part. He read coverage very well, made several pinpoint passes, and proved to be effectively mobile when he needed to be. The problem with Stafford and the entire passing offense on this day was simple: red zone performance. Reggie Bush electrified with an 18-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but outside of Stafford's 51-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate (also in the first quarter), the Lions could not put anything bigger than field goals on the board, and they were shut out entirely in the fourth quarter. Thus, Stafford's overall performance, and his numbers -- 28 of 42 passes for 323 yards -- were nothing but noise. And when Detroit's front office looks to improve this team in the offseason, it would be good to start with the construction of a running game that can beat enemy defenses down.
3. Defensive pass interference needs to be reviewable
Look -- we're not saying that the Cowboys won this game because of one brutal decision by the officials, but this one was hard to take. Pete Morelli's crew was far from spectacular in this game, missing several holds on both sides, and this call against Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens halfway through the fourth quarter appeared to be textbook defensive pass interference on tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The penalty was called at first, but the flag was then picked up without any explanation, and the Lions faced fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 46-yard line. While the Lions were figuring out whether to go for it or not, they were busted for delay of game, and they had to punt from their own 46.
The review shows that Hitchens clearly interfered with Pettigrew's right arm, and more importantly, Hitchens didn't turn his head -- he wasn't playing the ball, and that's a textbook violation of the league's rules regarding legal coverage. Even if you wanted to argue that Pettigrew initiated contact (sketchy, but possible), the Lions should have had the opportunity to review the no-call. Once again, the NFL needs to look at making judgment calls reviewable. It wasn't the thing that turned the game, as we'd just as easily blame the delay of game penalty and the Lions' atrocious 10-yard punt, but these are bang-bang calls that help end seasons, and they should be challengeable and reviewable. Dallas scored on the next drive to go up 24-20, and they stuck with that score. Maybe it would have been the same with an automatic first down for the Lions, but we'll never know, will we?
After the game, Morelli attempted to explain the call to a pool reporter, which led to further confusion.
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," he said. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding."
Morelli didn't discuss the penalty with his crew, and said that he was "a hundred miles away" when asked what he saw on the play.