ARLINGTON — No pain, no gain. After getting the former more than not earlier in the season, Dallas is starting to experience the latter on the regular, all while climbing to the top of the ladder in the NFC East with two games left in the regular season.
Dallas dealt with its fair share of challenges over the first half of the season during a 3-5 start, continuing into December with the tragic death and funeral of a teammate (Jerry Brown) in a recent fatal car accident also involving defensive lineman Josh Brent.
Add in a number of injuries and fresh faces — on the offensive and defensive lines, at receiver and in the secondary — and somehow the Cowboys traded places, from the NFC East basement to the penthouse.
Against the team from a city that prides itself on steel, Dallas managed to steal a win. Brandon Carr's interception of Ben Roethlisberger to start the extra session set up Dan Bailey's game-winning 21-yard field goal to send Dallas away with a clutch 27-24 overtime win over Pittsburgh Sunday in front of a packed house of 95,595 spectators, featuring clashing combinations of silver and blue and black and yellow, at Cowboys Stadium.
"Again, this bunch just would not quit," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after his team won their third straight game. "This has been particularly gratifying to see us get in here and play this way these last few ballgames."
Carr continued to be a driving force in the Cowboys turnaround, with his latest big play coming while fighting through tragedy all month.
"It was just reaction and instinct," said Carr when describing the game-changing turnover. "It was a big play. Those are the plays you dream about when you're in the backyard when you're making the game-winning touchdown or interception."
The former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback endured deaths of two friends, former teammate Jovan Belcher, who shot himself after killing his girlfriend Kassandra Perkins the morning of Dec. 8, just a week before the death of Brown. Grit, and the mentality not to quit on a season that appeared headed toward the drain a month ago, fueled Dallas players and coaches.
"We have a lot of heavy hearts right now," Carr continued. "We just keep fighting as a team because this season has been up and down and up and down."
Dallas receiver Dez Bryant further epitomized a determined Cowboys team, one now in a three-way tie in the NFC East at 8-6 along with the New York Giants and Washington. Playing with an injured finger, Bryant caught four passes for 59 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown from Tony Romo in the third quarter for a 17-10 Dallas lead.
"Just don't quit," Bryant said of the team's never-say-die attitude. "When you look in this locker room and you look at the players, if we're down going into the half or we're just down period, you can never sense it from anyone, that anyone is about to quit. It's all about fighting, fighting, fighting and we're about to score this drive and play football."
The Steelers (7-7) entered the game with the same record as the Cowboys, and hoped to use Roethlisberger's return from a shoulder injury as extra incentive. With several thousand supporters on hand, the Steelers were unable to take away the Cowboys' momentum, as Dallas dialed up victory for the fifth time in the last six games.
"We called a good play; we just didn't execute it," Roethlisberger said regarding the interception in overtime. "I should have put more on it and it would have been an easy completion. This is on me. I let the team, the fans, everybody down."
Romo outdueled his more-accomplished counterpart, a former Super Bowl champion. Romo completed 30 of 42 passes for 341 yards with two TDs and no interceptions.
At the end of the day, quarterback play determines who will go and who will stay for the long haul in the NFL season. If Romo keeps providing the spark, the dark days of recent Decembers could disappear for the Cowboys.
"I think our team has developed that mental toughness that knows no matter what's going on during the football game, as bad as it may look, we get to that fourth quarter (and) we have a shot to win the game," Romo said. ""We just believe in that."
Dallas coach Jason Garrett guarded against getting satisfied after the recent surge.
"A tie in the division after 14 games means nothing," Garrett said following the win. "What we have to do is get better, and get ready for the Saints."
Final score: Cowboys 27, Steelers 24.
Turning point: When John Phillips recovered Antonio Brown's fumble near midfield after a big return, and prevented the Steelers a chance to add to a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Dallas drove 44 yards to tie the game afterward, thanks to Demarco Murray's 3-yard TD run.
The game was over when: Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr stepped in front of Ben Roethlisberger's pass on the second play from scrimmage in overtime, and returned the interception to the 1-yard line to set up Dan Bailey's game-winning field goal from 21 yards out.
Key stats: Dallas finished with 415 total yards (328 passing) against Pittsburgh's NFL-leading defense, a unit that entered the game allowing only 262 yards per game.
Warning signs: Dallas sits in a good place atop the NFC East, but not a comfortable one with New York and Washington in the same situation in a division that appears destined for just one playoff spot.
Plus signs: Demarco Murray (14 carries, 81 yards, TD) makes the Cowboys offense more complete. Dallas beat a sound Pittsburgh team with an all-around effort — Tony Romo throwing for 300-plus yards, the defense registering four sacks and using Brandon Carr's interception in OT to set up the win, and the special teams contributing with a fumble recovery from its punt team, with a 39-yard punt return by Dwayne Harris and two field goals from Dan Bailey, the last to win the game.
What this win means: Dallas claimed the all-time series lead over Pittsburgh at 16-15. More importantly, Dallas increased its playoff chances two-fold. Dallas is 3-2 in the division after splitting the season series with the Giants, sweeping Philadelphia and losing the first game to Washington. New York is 2-3 in the NFC East, with Washington at 3-1 in the division.
Fast forward: Dallas invites New Orleans into Cowboys Stadium for a showdown next week, and end the regular season at Washington the following week. The Giants close at Baltimore and at home against Philadelphia. Washington travels to Philadelphia before hosting Dallas.