Wasn't it just like the Dallas Cowboys to pull it out in the final two minutes on Thanksgiving Day?

For the old Cowboys, America's Real Team, the answer is yes. Of course. It's only natural that Rafael Septien would kick a 23-yard field goal to win the game, 20-17, with four seconds remaining.

But what about these new Cowboys, the ones who lost to previously winless Buffalo, 14-3, four days earlier? The ones who said they were "embarrassed" in that game? The ones who still haven't decided on a quarterback with three games left in the season?

For these Cowboys, tonight's victory was not the norm. When the New England Patriots came back to tie the game, 17-17, with 1:58 remaining, these Cowboys weren't sure they could prevent the game from going into overtime.

"We didn't know if we could do it," said quarterback Danny White, starting for the third time this season in place of Gary Hogeboom.

Well, Washington Redskins and New York Giants, they did it. The Cowboys battled back from this week's confidence crisis with ease, "shooting from the hip," as White said, in a 10-play, 55-yard drive that led to Septien's winning kick.

And just like that, the Cowboys are back in first place in the NFC East at 8-5. They have put the pressure on, forcing the Redskins and Giants to win this Sunday to keep pace. The Patriots fell to 8-5.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Coach Tom Landry said, "but the Cowboys aren't dead yet."

They might have been when New England tied the game, 17-17, with 1:58 remaining on quarterback Tony Eason's one-yard dive. The play before, Craig James burst 43 yards on a draw, slipping right through a blitz by free safety Michael Downs.

Dallas had been blitzing well all day, and sacked Eason 10 times, two short of the NFL record.

"We escaped all our blitzes except the last one," Landry said of James' run. The next play was the touchdown -- and Dallas had just lost the lead it held since the first two minutes of the game, when Downs scored on a 27-yard interception return.

"Our confidence level was down," White said later. "It was not as low as it was at the start of the game, but I didn't know if we could do it."

Dallas teams in years past wouldn't have worried.

Dallas began at its 39 when Brian Salonen, a rookie from Montana, returned the kickoff 22 yards. "That was a big, big shot in the arm," White said.

Tony Dorsett gained 15 to the New England 46 before White threw for 13 more yards to Doug Donley. Three plays later, with the clock showing 1:36, White passed to Tony Hill for 11 more.

Another pass, this at the one-minute mark, went to tight end Doug Cosbie to the New England six. But, the funny thing was, almost none of these passes was thrown to the primary receiver. White said that "four or five passes" in that final drive were "adjustments" in the pass routes.

From the six, White tried one pass to Hill in the end zone before Septien came in for his field goal as the crowd of 55,341 in Texas Stadium stood and screamed.

It could be said that the Cowboys needed that. Landry said he was "embarrassed" by the loss to the Bills. The team has been worn and weary much of the season, and was stung this morning by a published report in which President Tex Schram said that some players on the team were "negative influences" and "finger pointers" and that they would not be back next season.

Schram said after the game that he was not going to name any names. "We do this after every season," he said. "We have to evaluate our football team. We need positive thinkers. The players expect that. They know who the contributors are."

Today, in the first half, the contributors were the 11 men who ran onto the field when the Patriots had the ball. Doomsday defense was back. Downs scored the only touchdown of the half, while Tony Franklin (29 yards) and Septien (28) traded field goals for Dallas' 10-3 halftime lead.

The Cowboys defense stopped the Patriots on 11 of 12 third-down attempts in the first half, and four of five in the second half. Eason was only 19 of 38 for 204 yards, while the 10 sacks ate up 57 yards.

White was 21 of 41 for 288 yards and was sacked only twice.

The drives that were missing in the first half came at the end of the third quarter. With the score stagnant at 10-3, the Cowboys took over following a punt at the 50 midway in the third quarter.

White completed an 11-yard screen to Dorsett, then a 20-yard pass to tight end Cosbie for a first down at the 19. After a draw lost one and an incompletion, White converted on a rare third down with a 12-yard pass to Donley to the eight.

After another one-yard loss and incompletion, White threw a nine-yarder to Hill, who had worked inside cornerback Ronnie Lippett in the end zone. With 3:03 to play in the third quarter, the Cowboys led, 17-3.