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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