10 plays highlighted Cowboys' season

Here are the 10 plays that shaped the 2009 season for the Dallas Cowboys:

No. 10: Cowboys 24, Raiders 7 (Week 12)

Situation: With the Cowboys leading by 10, the Raiders had the ball near the midway point of the second quarter. Third-and-8 from the Oakland 29.

What happened: Anthony Spencer, lined up as the left defensive end in the Cowboys' nickel package, blew by the Raiders' right tackle for his first sack of the season. He dropped Bruce Gradkowski for a 5-yard loss.

Why it mattered: It's not that this was a particularly spectacular sack or made a major impact in this game. But it broke the seal for Spencer, who got sick and tired of being a step away through 10 sackless games. He provided DeMarcus Ware a dominant edge pass-rushing partner down the stretch of the season, recording eight sacks in the final eight games, including the playoffs.

No. 9: Cowboys 21, Panthers 7 (Week 3)

Situation: Panthers' ball in a scoreless tie early in the second quarter. First-and-10 at the Carolina 42.

What happened: Mike Jenkins made a leaping interception on a deep ball intended for Muhsin Muhammad, timing his jump perfectly to soar over the receiver to pick off Jake Delhomme's pass.

Why it mattered: Wade Phillips announced that week that the rotation at right cornerback would end if Jenkins played well enough to keep the job. This pick highlighted a performance that proved Jenkins was up for the challenge of becoming a full-time starter. Jenkins used this game as a springboard, emerging as the Cowboys' top cornerback during the course of the season.

No. 8: Cowboys 7, Redskins 6 (Week 11)

Situation: Cowboys' ball, trailing by seven, with less than three minutes remaining in the game. Second-and-goal at the 10.

What happened: After struggling all game, Tony Romo made a classic gunslinger play. He spun out of the pocket just as Redskins defensive end Andre Carter was about to hit him from the blind side, rolled to his left and fired a bullet into the middle of the end zone to Patrick Crayton, who had found a sliver of space inside linebacker London Fletcher.

Why it mattered: It pulled victory from the jaws of defeat and saved the Cowboys from a two-game losing streak. The scramble and throw also reinforced the Cowboys' confidence in Romo's ability to find ways to win games, especially considering that he was playing with a sore back.

No. 7: Packers 17, Cowboys 7 (Week 10)

Situation: Cowboys' ball in a scoreless tie with 4:03 remaining in the second quarter. First-and-10 at the Dallas 28.

What happened: A much-needed big play turned into a turnover. After going in motion, Roy Williams got behind safety Aaron Rouse on a seam route and had room to run after Tony Romo hit him in stride. But cornerback Charles Woodson came from the other side of the field to strip Williams after a 42-yard gain to give Green Bay the ball.

Why it mattered: In a game in which points were at a premium, Williams botched the Cowboys' best opportunity to get into the end zone until garbage time. That's not a good way to earn the trust of the quarterback and offensive coordinator, something Williams openly discussed during the season. This play -- or perhaps the deep ball that bounced off his facemask before hitting the Lambeau Field turf later in the game -- symbolized an extremely disappointing season for the $45 million receiver.

No. 6: Vikings 34, Cowboys 3 (Divisional playoff)

Situation: Cowboys' ball in a scoreless game midway through the first quarter. Fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 30.

What happened: Wade Phillips opted not to go for it, placing his trust in a kicker the Cowboys signed off the streets in December even though it was determined before the game that Shaun Suisham couldn't be trusted outside of 45 yards. Suisham's 48-yard attempt sailed wide left.

Why it mattered: The Cowboys squandered an opportunity to take an early lead, giving the Vikings good field position in the process. Minnesota scored a touchdown four plays later to take the lead for good. Any hope of taking the rowdy Metrodome crowd out of the game was gone.

No. 5: Cowboys 34, Eagles 14 (wild-card playoff)

Situation: Cowboys' ball, leading by 20, midway through the third quarter. First-and-10 at the Dallas 27.

What happened: Felix Jones took the handoff, cut inside a kickout block by pulling guard Leonard Davis and exploded through a hole off right tackle. He made Joselio Hanson miss downfield and outran the rest of the Eagles' secondary for a 73-yard touchdown.

Why it mattered: The score sealed the Cowboys' first playoff win since the 1996 season. It highlighted a spectacular performance by Jones, whose 148 rushing yards on 16 carries were the third-most in Cowboys' postseason history. With Marion Barber nursing a sore knee, Jones made a statement that he's capable of being the lead horse in the Cowboys' backfield.

No. 4: Cowboys 20, Eagles 16 (Week 9)

Situation: Cowboys' ball in a tie game with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Third-and-14 at the Philadelphia 49.

What happened: Miles Austin, who had been shut out to this point, got behind the Eagles' secondary for the game-winning touchdown. Austin ran a slant-and-go, getting wide-open down the left sideline when cornerback Sheldon Brown bit badly on the first move. After the catch, Austin cut between the two safeties and raced diagonally across the field for the final 20 yards.

Why it mattered: The Cowboys seized sole possession of first place with the win. They also sent a strong statement to the Eagles that this wasn't the same team that finished the 2008 season with a 44-6 loss in Philadelphia. This was the first of three wins over Philadelphia.

No. 3: Giants 33, Cowboys 31 (Week 2)

Situation: Cowboys' ball, trailing by four, late in the third quarter. First-and-10 at the New York 46.

What happened: Tony Romo goes deep to Sam Hurd, never seeing safety Kenny Phillips, who made an easy play for the Giants' third interception of the game to kill the Cowboys' momentum.

Why it mattered: It was exactly the kind of play Romo talked all offseason and preseason about avoiding -- a careless turnover. It was his third interception of the game, a performance that spoiled the grand opening of Cowboys Stadium and ended up costing Dallas home-field advantage in the divisional round. Romo responded with a harsh postgame critique and recommitted himself to cutting down on turnovers. He finished the season with a career-low nine interceptions.

No. 2: Cowboys 24, Saints 17 (Week 15)

Situation: Saints' ball in the final minute, trying to drive for a touchdown to send the game into overtime. Second-and-10 at the Dallas 42.

What happened: DeMarcus Ware, whose playing status was a game-time decision because of a strained neck, turned the corner on left tackle Jermon Bushrod to get his second sack/strip on Drew Brees. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff recovered the fumble to seal the most important regular-season win in recent Cowboys history, handing the Saints their first loss of the season.

Why it mattered: Ware shoveled some dirt on the Cowboys' December demons by putting the finishing touches on a stunning win at the Superdome. It capped a remarkably inspirational performance by a man who was carted off the field on a gurney and rushed to the hospital six days earlier.

No. 1: Cowboys 26, Chiefs 20 (Week 5)

Situation: Overtime, Cowboys' ball at their 40.

What happened: Miles Austin, who was in the lineup because Roy Williams missed the game with a rib injury, broke Kansas City cornerback Maurice Leggett's tackle after catching the ball on a comeback route and sprinted up the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. It was his second long touchdown of the day, and be broke Bob Hayes' longstanding franchise record for receiving yards in a game, finishing with 250 yards on 10 catches.

Why it mattered: A star was born. Austin cemented his status as a starter with this record-breaking performance and ended up in the Pro Bowl, filling a massive void by becoming a No. 1 receiver. The Cowboys often pointed back to this comeback win over a then-winless team as the bonding experience that brought the team together. The emotional victory ended with Austin in the bottom of a celebratory dogpile in the Arrowhead Stadium end zone, a display of camaraderie for a team that was destroyed by chemistry issues the previous season.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.