Very little has gone predictably for the Dallas Cowboys this season. But they will come to town for Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field with their hopes suddenly buoyed for a stretch run to a playoff spot.
The Cowboys are on a two-game winning streak and are coming off a solid performance that produced their most lopsided triumph in 11 years. Quarterback Tony Romo has pronounced the fractured rib he suffered earlier this season fully healed. Rookie tailback DeMarco Murray and unheralded wide receiver Laurent Robinsonhave become major contributors to a new-look offense.
Their record, at 5-4, remains less than dazzling. But the Cowboys are on the heels of the first-place New York Giants (6-3) in the NFC East and have an advantage in the relative strength of the teams’ upcoming schedules. So there are plenty of reasons for the Cowboys to feel optimistic about their late-season chances as they prepare to face the Redskins, losers of five straight games following a 3-1 start.
“We are learning a little bit about who we are and what we can do, and what we are capable of doing,” Romo said after last Sunday’s 44-7 win over the Buffalo Bills in Arlington, Tex.
This season, few NFL teams have been as difficult to figure out as the Cowboys. There have been the most deflating of defeats, beginning on opening night when Romo lost a fumble and threw a late interception to help turn a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead into a 27-24 loss to the New York Jets.
There was an early-October defeat in which the Detroit Lions returned two Romo interceptions for touchdowns to start their rally from a 27-3 deficit. There was a narrow loss at New England when the Dallas defense couldn’t stop Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in crunch time, and there was a forgettable late-October performance at Philadelphia that resulted in a 27-point defeat.
But the Cowboys also won at San Francisco, handing the 49ers their lone loss of the season when Romo returned to the game after suffering his fractured rib. Romo also had a collapsed lung but played eight days later, engineering a victory at home over the Redskins.
“Coaches like to think, ‘Hey, I have an exact feel for how we’re going to play today,’ ” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said after the victory over the Bills. “I think that’s an inexact science at best. . . . You play through the adversity. You play through the success. You keep going.”
The Cowboys now hope they’re about to add some consistency. Their 37-point win over the , who entered the game with a 5-3 record, was the Cowboys’ largest margin of victory since a 41-point triumph over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2000.
“Of course we needed a win against a team that we had this kind of respect for, and it will help us be a better team,” team owner Jerry Jones said outside the locker room at Cowboys Stadium after the game.
Some of Romo’s missteps this season have drawn heavy scrutiny. But he is the league’s fourth-rated passer, behind only Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, Brady and Drew Brees of New Orleans. Romo set a single-game team record for passing accuracy against the Bills by connecting on 23 of 26 throws.
“It’s nice being healthy these past couple weeks,” Romo said. “The ball usually goes where you’re aiming when you’re healthy. That helps.”
Murray, a third-round draft choice in April out of Oklahoma, has established himself as the Cowboys’ featured back in Jones’s four-game absence. He had a club-record 253 rushing yards in a win over the St. Louis Rams last month. He has averaged 150.3 rushing yards per game over the last four games and seems likely to continue to get the bulk of the carries. Jones may return this week, but as a complementary runner.
Murray has given the Cowboys a productive runner who can keep defenses honest and protect leads. “The best part is to close out games,” Romo said. “You get a lead, and you can run the ball like that.”
Robinson also has become a significant part of the offense in place of Austin, who has been in and out of the lineup with hamstring injuries. Robinson is on his third team in five NFL seasons. But he hasn’t played like a journeyman recently, with 13 catches, four of them for touchdowns, in the Cowboys’ last three games.
The Cowboys are chasing the Giants, who are in the midst of a rugged stretch of their schedule. After a game Sunday night against the Eagles, they still must face two division leaders in the Saints and Packers. The Cowboys spend the next three weekends playing the Redskins, Dolphins and Cardinals, whose combined record is 8-19.
The Cowboys and Giants face one another twice in the season’s final four weeks.
“You have to get better,” Garrett said. “The teams that make the playoffs and the teams that do well in the playoffs are the teams that improve through the course of the season."