The Cowboys shook off the bad juju of two consecutive defeats and won for the first time in almost a month. A strong defensive effort had it's warts, but road wins in the NFL are hard to come by, and the Cowboys just wrangled one in.
All Hail Anthony Spencer!
After missing the last couple of games due to a strained pectoral muscle, Anthony Spencer made a hugely successful return and helped the Dallas defense secure a 19-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers. It was the Cowboys first victory in almost a full calendar month; the last coming at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 23rd.
Spencer sealed the game late with a humungous sack of Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton; turning in another great performance as he fights for recognition in what could be his final year in Dallas. He helped cause havoc for the Panthers passing game and helped seal the edge against their daunting running attack that appeared capable of owning the day for Carolina.
Behind four field goals by Dan "Split'Em" Bailey, the longest being a 49 yarder from the right hashmark, the Cowboys were able to stem their two-game losing streak and returned to .500 at 3-3. Tony Romo played mostly mistake free football, save for one gift when the Panthers dropped a sure interception. He ended his day 24 of 34 for 227 yards and a touchdown, a beautiful fade to Miles Austin that gave the Cowboys the lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Austin, who head coach Jason Garrett coyly admitted was still less-than 100% from his preseason hamstring injury, had a game Cowboys fans have become accustomed to; hauling in five catches for 97 yards and the score. With Dez Bryant's light afternoon, Austin again leads the team in receiving yardage to go along with his team-leading four scores.
The Dallas defense is the story of the day though, harassing Cam Newton over the second half after doing their best to contain him in the first half. Things got shaky once do-everything ILB Sean Lee left the game with a toe injury late in the first half. There was a bit of confusion, but not enough to sink the effort. The game also featured the first interception by a Cowboys DB of the season; as Morris Claiborne ended a Panthers scoring drive by picking off Newton inside the end zone in the second quarter. All in all, it was a solid effort by Dallas, but not one that is exactly going to quiet their critics.
Ware finished with eight tackles and a half sack he shared with Jason Hatchers. Spencer had six tackles, a sack and several pressures on Newton that resulted in incompletions. Josh Brent was ridiculous up the middle for Dallas. His pressure forced the bad throw that Claiborne intercepted and he was a continuous disruptive force for Dallas on run plays. Ware, Spencer, Lee and Carter all had tackles for losses and Lee made a great pass breakup on an apparent completion early before leaving injured.
You'll still probably hear that Dallas should not have had a fight in Carolina today. Despite the Panthers having a dual-threat quarterback in Cam Newton. Despite the Panthers having two weeks to prepare for the Cowboys due to their bye week leading into the game. Some fans are harder to appease than others; while some are just happy escaping a road game with the win.
The Cowboys will be holding their breath as their most important "up the middle" players suffered injuries today. C Phil Costa rolled an ankle in the first half and was sorely missed; Romo was barely pressured with him in the game and had to scramble to stay upright for the remainder of the game. Sean Lee injured his big toe, and although he wasn't on crutches, an attendant was nearby him with some as he limped out the locker room.
Dallas has now played two of their three back-to-back road stints for the 2012 season. They split at Giants at Seahawks and have now split at Baltimore at Carolina. In two weeks, they will have their third duo, at Atlanta then at Philadelphia. In between, they have a home date against the first-place New York Giants next Sunday, and look to sweep them for the first time since the 2007 regular season. The Giants are 5-2 after a late-game comeback win over the 3-4 Washington Redskins. The 3-3 Eagles were on a bye this week.
(As many Cowboys fans weren't able to watch the game, I'm giving a more detailed description of things moving forward)
The Cowboys started off the contest in inauspicious fashion, with Dan Bailey delivering the opening kickoff out of bounds and allowing the Panthers to start at their own 40. The teams traded three and outs followed by one first down and a punt that buried Dallas within the shadows of their own end zone.
On the strength of short underneath passes, mostly to Jason Witten, Dallas' offense was finally able to grab the momentum as they moved down field. A couple crucial 3rd down completions saw Dallas move down to the within the red zone. Unfortunately, a first and goal throw by Romo went wide as Austin was wide open heading to the front pylon. A 3rd and goal pass to Austin at the three didn't work as he was tackled before making it to the end zone. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal after holding the ball for more than 10 minutes on an 18 play drive.
The Panthers get the ball back and finally get their offense on track. Carolina gets close to midfield when 3rd down pressure forces Cam Newton outside the pocket. Unfortunately there was no contain and Cam rumbles 24 yards down the right sideline. Three plays later, Cam cruises down to the Cowboys 6 yard line with a read option where DeMarcus Ware stayed with the running back and Newton followed a blocker inside the 10. Fortuntely for the Cowboys, their defense didn't relent. They stuffed a Panthers run, and then with inside pressure by Josh Brent, Newton throws one short into the end zone and is plucked off by Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne's pick was the first by a Dallas defensive back all season and was upheld after a review.
Dallas used the momentum of the pick to drive on the Panthers. The running game seemed to finally be getting on track for the Cowboys, as they moved into the Panthers side of the field behind a nine-yard run by Felix and a couple more from back up Phillip Tanner. Romo, however would miss Austin as he settled in between zone defenders and on the next play, tragedy happened.
Romo found Austin on a crossing pattern, and as he maneuevered further downfield, had the ball knocked out of his hands from behind. The ball was scooped by Carolina and returned a decent amount of yardage. The worse news was yet to come, as Phil Costa rolled his ankle dropping back in pass protiection. A cart was immediately brought out to get him off the field. Costa's return after only playing the first three snaps of the season was huge as he earned Pro Football Focus' highest game-grade of a center for his performance last week in Baltimore (+6.3). Ryan Cook was in at center when Dallas knelt to kill the final 14 seconds of the half.
That was necessary because the Panthers successfully moved on the Cowboys defense on the subsequent drive. Cam Newton accounted for all 80 yards (60 passing) and 20 rushing on the drive. It ended with Brandon LaFell, who had just raced down the left sideline for 32 yards, caught a 3rd and goal crossing route from the four yard line and snuck the ball inside the pylon before he went out of bounds.
That gave the Panthers a 7-3 halftime lead.
Dallas started the second half with the ball after winning the opening toss and deferring. They managed to gain a first down, but a WR screen to Ogletree on 3rd and nine resulted in a punt. Carolina returned the favor after a 3rd and 13 pass to Steve Smith was short of the first.
Dallas started their next drive from the 37 and immediately commit a penalty; Jason Witten holds on a Felix gain of four to put Dallas in first and 20. Kevin Ogletree, the teams maligned third receiver subsequently let a pass bunce off his chest to force 2nd and long. Tony Romo refuses to lose faith in him, and finds him along the same sideline for 11 to make a manageable third down.
Dallas lines up in "10" personnel, 1 back and four receivers, with Austin playing left slot. He works his way free as Romo finds him for a huge gain of 36 yards over the middle. He secures the ball with both hands as the Panthers finally bring him down at the 26. On the very next play, with great protection, Romo lofts a beautiful fade down the left sideline that Austin hauls in and gets both feet in bounds easily as Dallas retook the lead 10-7.
After Dallas forces a three and out by the Panthers thanks to a drop by Louis Murphy, Dez Bryant returns the punt in heavy traffic for 10 yards, courtesy of a couple spins. The last spin might have been too much, as when he was turned backwards and going down, James Anderson came in and hit Bryant in the back of his helmet with the crown of his own, sending Dez to the sideline for concussion tests.
Dallas drove down field, but was stalled after Doug Free was called for his league-leading 5th false start and a 3rd and 4 turned into a 3rd and 9 incomplete attempt to Jason Witten. Dan Bailey nailed a 49 yarder from the right hashmark with plenty to spare for a 13-7 lead.
On the following drive, Carolina had third and one and Dallas was finally able to stop the read option. Anthony Spencer turned Cam back inside where he was met and stonewalled by Dan Connor (in to replace Sean Lee due to a big toe injury) and Gerald Sensabaugh. Another three and out forced by the Dallas defense who entered the league forcing one on 44.7% of opponent drives.
Losing Lee appears to leave the Dallas defense wanting. A big confusion allows Jonathan Stewart to plow up the middle of the field for a big gain. A couple plays later confusion reigns as Morris Claiborne was burned by Louis Murphy into the middle of the field.
Not to be outdone by confusion, the penalty Cowboys returned. After a completion to the right sideline would have brought up 3rd and short inside the 20, Jay Ratliff decides to shove a Panther down to the ground and give Carolina first and goal from around the five. Three straight incompletions? Wait a minute says the penalty Cowboys as Brandon Carr holks Steve Smith and gives them a fresh set of downs from the two. Mike Tolbert bullies his way into the end zone and all momentum is lost as the Panthers retake the lead 14-13.
Dallas was unable to muster much on the subsequent drive and punted the ball away. Lance Dunbar made a tremendous open field tackle to prevent any return yards. Carolina returned the favor with another three and out after Anthony Spencer flushed Cam and made him throw the ball away. Dez Bryant fair caught the punt at the Dallas 40 and a flag on Carolina for running out of bounds adds five yards and got Dallas closer to midfield.
With 7:33 left in the game, Dallas runs a lot of clock, moving the ball down the field meticulously. After a Felix run and an incompletion, Romo found Phillip Tanner underneath for the check down first down. On the next play, Romo would scramble up the middle due to some pressure. He gained the first down but missed a wide open Jason Witten who had gotten behind every Panthers and would have scored easily.
After a crushing Tanner run, Romo found Witten on the left sideline for another first down. On second down, Romo makes a nice throw to Dez whodrops the touchdown pass. There was some contact by the corner, but the ball hit Dez in the arms and should have been caught.
Then on 3rd and 9, Jason Garrett elects to go conservative and runs a draw to basically play for the field goal; which Dan Bailey makes and gives Dallas a 2 point lead with 3:26 left on the clock.
The Panthers were abel to get a first down quickly, but were then shut down by the Cowboys defense. Jay Ratliff hit Cam as he was able to get a throw away before going down. On third down, Newton had enough time and found Steve Smith a few yards shy of a first down on a nice tackle by Orlando Scandrick.
For some reason, Dallas was not expecting Carolina to run a fourth down play. Everyone else was expecting it. Anothony Spencer luckily called a timeout to save the first down pass or the assured first down for having 14 men on the field.
The refs returned the no-penalty favor to Dallas on the next play, Morris Claiborne got to WR Louis Murphy early but wasn't called for defensive interference. Dallas took over at the 39 with 2:08 left in the game.
Dallas was again made fortunate by the referees when a clothesline tackle on Phillip Tanner, what we call a "yoke", was ruled a horse collar by the ref and gave Dallas a new set of downs. Dallas was able to kick another field goal, Dan Bailey's fourth of the game to take a 19-14 lead with just under a minute left.
The game was effectively ended when Anthony Spencer crushed Cam Newton for his third sack of the season, and Carolina barely had any time remaining to run a hook and ladder type of play that ended with a fumble recovery on a toss back to DeMarcus Ware.