Late-season surge has Cowboys in control of fate

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can’t help but think about the
New York Giants going from 7-7 to a Super Bowl title last
season.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to remind him that the Green Bay
Packers had a defense that overcame injuries and won a championship
a year earlier – at his stadium, no less.

”You can legitimately look at how the Giants played last year,
what they did at the end of the year and how they took it all the
way,” Jones said after Dallas beat the Steelers in front of
thousands of Terrible Towel-waving fans at Cowboys Stadium on
Sunday. ”And that’s not unrealistic to think that that can happen
to you.”

Maybe Jones was a little giddy after the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh
27-24 in overtime for their third straight win.

Dallas is tied for first in the NFC East after winning three
straight games and five of six, and for the first time in weeks
doesn’t need help to reach the playoffs.

The Cowboys (8-6) are in if they beat New Orleans on Sunday at
home and win at Washington in two weeks.

The game against the Redskins could end up looking a lot like
last season’s finale, when the Giants beat the Cowboys in New
Jersey with a playoff berth on the line.

The Green Bay connection is even more striking. The Cowboys have
lost about as many defenders as the Packers did when they beat the
Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 2010 season.

Four Dallas starters are on injured reserve, and a fifth –
defensive tackle Jay Ratliff – won’t play again in the regular
season after sports hernia surgery. Nickel cornerback Orlando
Scandrick (left hand and wrist) is out for the season as well, and
rookie starter Morris Claiborne missed the Pittsburgh game with a
concussion. Claiborne said Monday he thought he would play against
the Saints (6-8).

Ratliff’s backup, Josh Brent, won’t return this season following
his arrest on an intoxication manslaughter charge in the one-car
accident that killed teammate and close friend Jerry Brown.

Yet somehow, the Cowboys keep winning, with plenty of help from
the defense. Brandon Carr set up a touchdown with an interception
in a 20-19 win at Cincinnati the day after the crash that killed
Brown.

Dallas attended a private memorial service for Brown last
Tuesday, then Carr won the Pittsburgh game by intercepting Ben
Roethlisberger on the second play of overtime and returning it to
the Steelers 1.

Dan Bailey kicked a winning 21-yard field goal a week after his
40-yarder as time expired beat the Bengals.

”You never know how you’re going to handle situations when
you’re dealt with adversity like we had last week,” said tight end
Jason Witten, who caught a touchdown pass from Tony Romo for the
first time this season Sunday against the Steelers.

”Everyone handled it professionally. Yeah, we were emotional.
We stayed together and stayed focused.”

It would have been easy for the Dallas defense to give up after
Thanksgiving, when linebacker Bruce Carter sustained a
season-ending elbow injury in the most demoralizing game of the
season.

The Cowboys wilted in the return of Heisman Trophy winner Robert
Griffin III to Texas. The former Baylor star dazzled in a 28-point
second quarter that led the Redskins to a 38-31 win.

The loss of Carter meant the top two inside linebackers were
gone for the season – including defensive leader Sean Lee – and the
roster shuffle was on. Brady Poppinga joined Ernie Sims as veterans
brought in off the street to help Dan Connor, who figured to be a
backup when he signed as a free agent.

Second-year player Alex Albright, Dallas’ third-leading tackler
against Pittsburgh after Sims went out with a concussion, and
rookie Kyle Wilber were much higher on the depth chart than
planned.

At least the Cowboys knew all the names of replacement
linebackers on game day. When safety Charlie Peprah – another
off-the-street pickup – injured a foot in practice after he’d
already dealt with a concussion, the Cowboys brought in Sterling
Moore so late on a Friday they barely had a chance to talk to him
before putting him on the active roster two days later against
Philadelphia.

And then there was Michael Coe, a former New York Giants
cornerback who recovered a fumble against Dallas in October before
he was released and signed by the Cowboys last week. He was No. 36
before Sunday’s game. He was No. 20 during it.

”We’re battling and peaking,” Romo said. ”I said earlier we
need name tags. A couple of the guys earlier, I said, `Great job
No. 20?’ I know his name is Coe now, but there a bunch of guys who
just got here that are playing and getting a bunch of
minutes.”

At least Romo knows Coe’s name now. Defensive end Jason Hatcher
was calling him ”a guy from New York” after beating the Steelers.
Who’s the cornerback from New York?

”I don’t know,” Hatcher said. ”You see what I’m saying?”

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