Dallas 38, Indianapolis 35: Redemption, New Heroes, and Nail Biting

Rookie LB Sean Lee came up huge, picking off two passes against the Colts. His second pick set up the game-winning field goal.

When the schedule first came out for the 2010 season, most had great concerns that the Cowboys had to face the Saints and Colts in back-to-back weeks. When Dallas lost to New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day, it looked like it might be the end of the short honeymoon period for Jason Garrett as interim head coach.

Few gave the Cowboys much of a chance to win at Indianapolis, with many blogs and forums just wondering about what next year’s draft might bring or just asking some of the same questions. After the Cowboys came away with a 38-35 win over the Colts, perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to the rest of this otherwise dreadful year.

The heroes in the past few weeks have been the likes of rookies Dez Bryant and Bryan McCann. Bryant had a long kickoff return called back because of a holding penalty, and he otherwise did little against the Colts. He broke his ankle on kickoff return early in the fourth quarter, and he will be out for the rest of the season.

McCann very nearly became Goat (complete with the capital G) when he fumbled a kickoff return with the score tied at 35 and less than 30 seconds remained. Fortunately, running back Lonyae Miller was there to pick up the ball deep in Indianpolis territory. Miller had been promoted from the practice squad late last week because Marion Barber was out.

Miller was just one of several Dallas heroes today who were either redeemed for past failures or who came from nowhere to make key plays.

Consider:

Alan Ball before today: Perhaps the worst safety in the NFL.

Alan Ball today: Picked off Payton Manning on the Colts’ first drive of the game. The Cowboys scored a field goal on the ensuing drive.

Orlando Scandrick before today: Weak nickle corner who has regressed since looking strong as a rookie in 2008.

Orlando Scandrick today: Extended the Dallas lead to 17-0 with a pick-6 early in the second quarter. It was his first interception of the season.

Tashard Choice before today: Third head of a three-headed monster chiuaua at the running back spot.

Tashard Choice today: Gave the Cowboys an early 7-0 lead on a nice 20-yard TD run in the first quarter. He finished with 100 yards on 19 carries. Marion Barber would not have made those plays.

Roy Williams before today: Goat of the Thanksgiving Day game thanks to a late fumble.

Roy Williams today: With the Cowboys facing a 2nd-and-19 from their own 46 in the third quarter, Williams caught a slant and then used his blockers effectively on his way to a 22-yard gain. The play helped to set up a field goal that extended the Dallas lead to 20-14. Williams also caught a two-point conversion that gave the Cowboys a 35-28 lead.

Sean Lee before today: Underwhelming second-round pick at linebacker.

Sean Lee today: Came up with two huge interceptions. He returned the first 31 yards for a touchdown to extend the Dallas lead to 27-14. His second came in overtime and put the Cowboys in position to drive 16 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

David Buehler before today: Undependable (even if strong-legged) kicker.

David Buehler today: Still undependable, giving that he missed a field goal late in the first half. But he was great on kickoffs, averaging 73.8 yards per kick and causing four touchbacks on eight kicks. He nailed the game-winner from 38 yards to give Dallas the win.

This was exactly the kind of game that the Cowboys have managed to lose all year. Dallas jumped out to a 17-0 lead only to watch Payton Manning start to pick apart the Dallas secondary. Dallas only led 17-14 after the Colts drove 80 yards in just 1:07 early in the third quarter.

It would be natural to expect the Cowboys to fold there, but Dallas extended its lead to 27-14 thanks to a strong defensive effort for the remainder of the third quarter, along with Lee’s interception return for a touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, the Colts faced a 3rd-and-12 from the Indianapolis 46. The Cowboys could have forced their third consecutive punt, but Manning found Blair White for the first down. On the next play, Manning hit Reggie Wayne for a 40-yard gain down to the Dallas 1. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Colts scored to cut the Dallas lead to 27-21.

Dallas went three-and-out, and on the Dallas punt, Taj Smith blew right past Jesse Holley to block Mat McBriar’s kick. Smith recovered the ball and scored (not really, but Dallas didn’t challenge the play), giving the Colts a 28-27.

Okay, so this is where the Cowboys will fold. Right?

Nope. Dallas went on an unbelievable 19-play, 78-yard drive. The Cowboys had a first-and-goal at the Indianapolis 1, but Dallas could not punch it in. However, on Buehler’s field goal attempt with 3:36 left, the Colts were called for illegal leverage, resulting in a first down for Dallas. The Cowboys scored a touchdown on third down with 2:43 left, and when Kitna hit Williams for the two-point conversion, Dallas had a seven-point lead.

Had the Cowboys stopped the Colts in the next drive, the entire defense might be redeemed. However, Manning had no trouble finding Reggie Wayne on five completions on the ensuing drive, and Javarris James’ two-yard touchdown with 29 second left tied the game.

Dallas had all three timeouts, but McCann fumbled the ball on the kickoff. With 21 seconds left and Dallas sitting at its own 24, Garrett elected to sit on the ball.

Once again, the Cowboys had no momentum, and it was only natural to think that the Colts would march right down the field yet again in overtime. However, Wayne dropped a third-down pass on the Colts’ first possession, and Indianapolis had to punt. Dallas went nowhere, but McBriar nailed a 65-yard punt that put the Colts back at their own 27.

On 3rd and 4, Manning tried to hit Jacob Tamme, but Mike Jenkins tipped the ball in the air, and Lee grabbed the ball off the deflection. Dallas gained 16 yards on the ground, setting up Buehler’s game winner.