Romo and Co. rejuvenate Dallas
ATLANTA -- During his nearly two-decade stewardship of the Dallas Cowboys, owner Jerry Jones has witnessed some exceptional offensive units.
And the one the Cowboys have assembled this season, Jones readily acknowledged late Saturday night, might be right near the top of the heap.
"I don't want to say yet that this [offense] is there with some of the ones from our Super Bowl teams," Jones said after the Cowboys outlasted the Atlanta Falcons, 38-28, by scoring the final 17 points to overcome a 28-21 third-quarter deficit. "But I will say this: With the people we have and the way that our quarterback [Tony Romo] can make plays, I kind of expect us to score every time it's our turn with the ball. Really, you get spoiled, and you're disappointed when you don't [score]. We've got a lot of playmakers."
Dallas needed just about every last one of them to best the desperate Falcons and, if the defense doesn't perform better than it has in its last two outings, it might need to win some shootouts like the one here Saturday to advance deep into the playoffs.
After surrendering five touchdown passes to Drew Brees of New Orleans last Sunday night, the Cowboys allowed four scoring passes to the Falcons' Michael Vick, who has never been mistaken for a particularly accurate passer but who registered a 121.0 efficiency rating. The Falcons, who scored on three of four second-quarter series, rolled up 19 first downs and 376 yards. And there were stretches when the Cowboys, despite having superior front seven athletes in their 3-4 schemes, seemed incapable of slowing the Falcons' No. 9-rated attack.
But give credit to Dallas' defense, which has allowed 90 points over the past three outings, for this: In the second half, after abandoning a man-to-man coverage scheme Vick shredded in the first two quarters and going to more zone looks, it made enough stops to allow the Cowboys' offense time to take command.
And when Dallas' offense got rolling downhill, conceded Falcons defensive tackle Rod Coleman, it was all but impossible to slow.
"They get into a rhythm, and they kind of come at you in waves," said Coleman, who had a terrific game with four tackles, two sacks and a pass deflection that turned into an interception. "Once they string a few plays together and their confidence gets going, they get a look about them, that's like, 'You can't stop us now.' There came a time tonight, man, when we saw that look. [I] wished to hell we hadn't."
There were times Saturday when Dallas' offense almost appeared to be coasting, moving the ball with a frightening efficiency that made the game appear to be a scrimmage. Part of the reason is that Romo has so many weapons at his disposal.
In connecting on 22 of 29 attempts for 278 yards, Romo completed four or more passes to four different receivers and five passes to three different players. Both of Romo's scoring passes were to Terrell Owens, who bested Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall in their grudge match and also reportedly spat on the Falcons' star. And when starting tailback Julius Jones struggled [13 carries for just 26 yards], Dallas turned the running game over to backup Marion Barber (11 rushes, 69 yards, two TDs), who is emerging as a superb fourth-quarter closer.
Trailing 28-21 after Vick's second touchdown pass to Justin Griffith four minutes into the second half -- the fourth touchdown catch by a fullback against the Cowboys in two weeks -- the Romo-led offense went to work.
From that point, Romo hit on 11 of 14 passes for 146 yards and avoided a Falcons rush that had contained him inside the pocket for the first half. It's clear that Romo struggles when forced to sit in the pocket and deliver. That was the strategy of the Saints last week, and it was a blueprint Atlanta followed for much of the first two quarters. Romo had three passes deflected at the line of scrimmage in the first half, and the carom off Coleman got the Falcons back into the game when strongside linebacker Michael Boley intercepted and the Falcons cashed in to halve a 14-0 Cowboys' lead.
As had been the case in his previous seven starts, though, Romo was not to be deterred.
"The thing we get from Tony," said tight end Jason Witten, "is that he spreads it around to everyone. He doesn't care who's getting the catches, who's running the ball, as long as we keep it going. He knows he has a lot of weapons in the arsenal and he tries to use them all."
Despite sputtering in the middle portion of the game, Dallas' offense, ranked No. 4 in the league, still rang up 21 first downs, 352 yards and scored on five of 11 possessions. A sixth score came when linebacker Demarcus Ware intercepted a Vick pass at point-blank range, as he was right in the face of the Atlanta quarterback on one of his several forays into the Falcons' backfield, and rambled 41 yards in the second quarter.
That was one of the big plays Dallas' defense contributed on another night when it was far from its best. The Cowboys got some help from the Falcons, who committed costly penalties on offense and had more than their share of curious calls. The most dubious came on a fourth-and-one from the Cowboys' 37-yard line three minutes into the fourth quarter. Rather than roll Vick, who set a league QB record for most season rushing yards with 990, to the edge to present him some options, the coaches called for a pass. Vick made a poor read, missing wide-open tight end Alge Crumpler to his right, and instead threw left for wide receiver Ashley Lelie, who could not make the play.
"We got lucky a few times," noted Dallas linebacker Bradie James. "But this is a team now that figures out a way to win. We used to be pretty big finger-pointers in here. The offense didn't think the defense was doing enough. The defense didn't think the offense was doing its share. Now we just figure, 'Hey, as long as we win, who cares how it happened?' Tonight, the offense came through for us."
Not all that long ago, the Cowboys didn't figure to win many shootouts like the one Saturday night. But if the defense doesn't get straightened out, and quickly, Romo and Co. might need to carry the load.
Over the past two weeks, in particular, the Cowboys have looked like a flawed team. But the offense just might be pretty enough and prolific enough to wipe out the warts.
"The good news," said Owens, "is that we can do it on offense. We definitely can do it."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.