Today at Texas Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys' long-time tradition of holiday excellence was placed squarely at odds with the vagaries of their inconsistencies this season.
The Cowboys, 13-3-1 on Thanksgiving, gave up 229 yards and 17 first-half points to the struggling St. Louis Cardinals but controlled the second half and won, 35-17. At 9-4, they are a half game in front of the New York Giants and 1 1/2 ahead of the Washington Redskins.
Danny White completed 13 of 25 passes for 218 yards and a season-high four touchdowns for the Cowboys, who won back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 6 and 13.
Since beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-13, Oct. 13, the Cowboys have gone 4-3. Most disheartening was a 44-0 humiliation by the Chicago Bears.
Whether or not the Texans will get an opportunity to atone for that debacle remains to be seen, but today they completed their retribution against Eastern Division rivals.
"That says a lot to me," White said. "First there was the Washington game, which we had to win. Then there was the game against the Bears, which put us into another must-win situation against the Eagles. Now this one. I just think it says a lot about the character of the guys on this team."
"I feel good because we are in position to win the NFC East now," Coach Tom Landry said, "if we play good the rest of the way. I was really worried at first. The Cardinals looked really good. Then they kind of sagged in the second half. That happens to a team that's not in the race."
The character of the Cowboys might not be as important as the imagination of the team's coaches. Criticized for a relatively staid attack, the team has opened up recently. Against the Eagles, for example, White passed to Doug Cosbie for a one-yard touchdown on fourth down.
Today the duo got together on five completions for 111 yards and a score. White passed to Tony Hill three times for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've talked about it," White said, "and now we're putting the ball in the end zone when we get it in plus territory. We've gone from a team that racks up a lot of yards to one that scores a lot of points."
There was plenty of that in the first half, Dallas scoring 5:14 into the game. Five plays after Eugene Lockhart recovered Stump Mitchell's fumble, White passed to Mike Renfro for an 18-yard touchdown.
The series didn't bode well for the Cardinals (4-9), who entered the game averaging just over eight points in their last eight games. Losers in seven of those, the team was further hampered by leading rusher Ottis Anderson's injury; he remained in St. Louis.
That didn't stop the Cardinals on a 71-yard, 11-play touchdown march of their own. They tied the game on Mitchell's two-yard plunge. Neil Lomax (28 for 43 for 319 yards) completed four of five passes for 50 yards on the drive.
The rest of the half was similar. St. Louis went ahead by 10-7 on Novo Bojovic's 38-yard field goal; White passed to Cosbie for a 19-yard touchdown less than six minutes later; the Cardinals' Roy Green scored on a five-yard pass with 1:57 left in the half.
But that was only a precursor to what Landry called the turning point. Beginning from their 22, the Cowboys needed four plays -- and 49 seconds -- to score on White's 16-yarder to Hill.
"We'd had a tough first half because we couldn't get anything going," Landry said. "Our kicking game was sluggish; our defense was sluggish. That drive was a key series for us. It gave us the momentum we needed."