Analysis: Resilience propels Cowboys past Lions in playoff dogfight
ARLINGTON, Texas — Resilience was the ticket.
The Dallas Cowboys took body blows, head shots and stiff uppercuts in a dogfight of an NFC playoff opener Sunday.
And they survived to play another game.
Dallas rallied from a 14-point hole to eliminate the Detroit Lions, 24-20, and advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Besides cracking the code for moving the football against one of the NFL's best defenses — and no doubt, the midweek reversal of Ndamukong Suh's suspension was so significant — this was about the Cowboys showing enough fortitude to survive the ultimate gut check.
Imagine if the Cowboys had lost. They could kick themselves for a missed field goal. Or for squandering a third-and-1 deep in Detroit territory. Or for not picking up the blitz.
But the Cowboys, who rolled through December to win the NFC East title and end the regular season as the hottest team in the NFL, were better than that.
With the game on the line, Tony Romo — the NFL's leading passer and hottest hand in December — was as clutch as he's ever been.
On the go-ahead drive, Romo avoided the ferocious rush that in his face all day to find Jason Witten over the middle for 21 yards on a fourth-and-4. Then, on a make-or-break, third-and-goal from the 8, he found Terrance Williams in the back of the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Cowboys their first lead of the game, 24-20.
Turns out, it was the only lead the Cowboys would need.
But it was so hard to get.
The Lions brought the type of special defense that you knew it would take to slow down the red-hot Cowboys, fueling an intriguing strength-on-strength subplot.
This would not be settled easily, nor without blood and bruises.
The Lions defense seemed intent on taking the fight to the Cowboys, rather than waiting to react.
This aggressiveness was evident with the manner of choice blitzes that coordinator Teryl Austin dialed up to disrupt whatever tempo the Cowboys hoped to establish.
One time, it was a third-down blitz by Don Carey that forced a hurried incompletion. Another time, James Ihedigbo came off the edge to sack Romo to set up a third-and-19 incompletion.
Later, a sack by Tahir Whitehead on a delayed blitz up the middle that left Romo slamming the ball to the turf in frustration.
This was all essential to the game of catch-up the Lions forced upon the Cowboys.
Detroit set the tone by taking a 14-0 lead — the first TD coming on a quick strike by Golden Tate for 51 yards, the second coming on the strength of a 99-yard drive — that forced the Cowboys into some tough choices.
Stick to the running game against the NFL's best run defense?
Let Romo try to sling it around in the face of the blitzes?
A quick score — Williams went 76 yards on a slant pattern — just before halftime may have saved Dallas' season. It cut the led the lead to 14-7.
On this day, a touchdown must have felt like three touchdowns.
And touchdowns on this day also demonstrated a certain resilience.
The Cowboys' challening day was surely exemplified by a sequence to start the second half. Dallas forced a turnover on the first snap of the third quarter, then squandered the superb field position when a third down sack of Romo was followed by Dan Bailey's miss on a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Detroit answered that with a field goal drive.
But this was more than a mere six-point swing.
That the Cowboys — who have transformed the offense this season to flow through their power rushing game — opted to pass on third-and-1 from the Lions 10-yard line said a whole lot about how this game was flowing.
The Lions defense took the hot Cowboys offense out of its rhythm.
Yet Dallas would still need to prove that it could make a yard when it had to.
After DeMarco Murray was wrapped up and stonewalled by Ndamukong Suh short of the goal line on third-and-goal, Jason Garrett went for it on fourth down.
Here's how to get that yard: Run away from Suh.
Murray scooted around left end for the 1-yard touchdown that made it a one-possession game.
After that, the Cowboys showed they were indeed tough enough to finish the job.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell