Cowboys finally getting it done in December

ARLINGTON, Texas — One of the safest bets in professional sports is the Dallas Cowboys falling apart in December. And fair or not, quarterback Tony Romo has been the face of that failure dating back to the 2006 season.

He’s been hailed as Mr. November based in part on his remarkable record in that month, but mostly it’s a derisive way of pointing out his shortcomings in the month that follows. But after Sunday’s 27-24 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Cowboys Stadium awash in Terrible Towels, Romo has led his team to three consecutive wins in December. The Cowboys are in a three-way tie for first with the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants, who were summarily dismissed by the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

What seemed like a pipe dream only a few weeks ago is now a reality. And if the Cowboys can get past the New Orleans Saints next week, there’s a good chance they’ll be playing the Redskins for the NFC East crown in the season finale. Head coach Jason Garrett swatted away questions about his team’s playoff hopes, saying that being in a three-way tie for the division lead after Week 15 “means nothing.” However, his quarterback acknowledged the Cowboys are getting hot at the right time. And Romo went out of his way to praise an offensive line that normally requires him to become an escape artist on a weekly basis.

“If our guys can block the way they did today,” said Romo, “we’re going to be a dangerous football team.”

Romo was only sacked once Sunday, and it happened because the Steelers had good coverage on the play. Fortunately for the Cowboys, solid coverage from the Steelers was a rarity in this game. Much like the Cowboys, the Steelers were compromised at cornerback. Someone named Josh Victorian, who was released twice by the Patriots last season, was no match for Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, or anyone else for that matter. And in the first half, Romo exploited the Steelers defense with two throws to rookie tight end James Hanna for a combined 45 yards. If the Steelers were wondering where Hanna came from, they had plenty of company.

Romo connected on 30-of-42 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys’ offense has been dreadful in the first half for much of the season, but it was extremely efficient against the Steelers. Romo connected with six different receivers in the first half, and DeMarco Murray had 62 yards on nine carries. But Murray’s fumble at the Steelers’ 7-yard line late in the first quarter allowed the Steelers to stay within striking distance. And when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for 10 seconds (seriously, I counted) before connecting with Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, it appeared the Steelers had all the momentum.

But on the Cowboys’ second possession of the second half, Romo connected on six consecutive passes before throwing a 24-yard dart to Dez Bryant in the end zone to give the Cowboys a 17-10 lead. Bryant didn’t appear to be affected by a broken left index finger that he suffered during last Sunday’s win in Cincinnati. Garrett said that Bryant had a couple of animated discussions with him early last week in which he expressed his intent to play through the injury no matter what the circumstances.

Romo and his receivers were in a good rhythm for much of the game, and he attributed that to gaining a better understanding of what Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was trying to accomplish. When the Cowboys lost to the Steelers in Pittsburgh four years ago, Romo admitted that it took him a long time to recognize what LeBeau was doing with his pass-rush. On Sunday, Romo was decisive from the start. The ball was coming out a lot quicker than usual because he was finding favorable matchups with tight ends being covered by linebackers.

“If you gain an understanding, you can gain an advantage,” said Romo, who called LeBeau the best defensive coordinator in the game. “They like to do the same thing, with a completely different look, over and over again. They will give you what looks like a pressure look, they will send the safety and drop the down linemen. It makes quarterbacks rush. They feel the pressure that extra defenders are coming. They want to get the quarterback’s timing off. And I tried very hard to not allow that to happen today.”

It also helps that Romo has gained a lot more trust in his receivers. Both he and Garrett talked about how far Bryant has come in several different areas, such as route-running. And Romo is especially pleased that Dwayne Harris has emerged as such a threat, both as a punt returner and receiver. The quarterback spent a lot of time in training camp barking at Harris for not running the correct routes. After watching Harris have another strong outing Sunday, Romo sounded like a proud parent.

“That guy’s a football player,” he said.

The Cowboys will have their first winning record in December since 2001, although they did manage to win three of their final five games in ’09. When this team was 3-5, it would’ve been hard to predict it would win five of the next six games. But that’s exactly what has happened. And Romo has led the way. Despite his gaudy stats, Romo’s career has been largely defined by what he hasn’t accomplished. He’s stuck on one playoff win, but it’s looking like he might have a legitimate chance to add to that total.

“Whether we’re down three, whether we’re tied, whether we’re down 10, we’re going to battle and find a way to get the job done,” said Romo. “By no means has it been pretty over the last six or seven games. But, I do know that our football team knows that we can compete and win late in the football game. And we believe that we are going to go down and score when we need to.”

And now that those wins are finally happening in December, the Cowboys have a shot at extending their season.