All season long, Cowboys fans have had to deal with the fact that the best-looking loss (or at least the best second-half comeback) is still a loss. With every game now heavy with playoff implications, Dallas is learning to appreciate that an ugly win is still a win.
It was an emotional day in Cincinnati as the Cowboys reeled from the untimely death of Jerry Brown Jr., 25, and the unthinkable manslaughter intoxication arrest of teammate Josh Brent.
In spite of it all, Dallas soldiered on while the Bengals receivers dropped the ball on what should have been an easy win. It wasn't pretty, but the Cowboys squeaked out a win and remain very much in the playoff hunt due to these game changers:
Brandon Carr stops the Bengals' momentum
There's only one way that a team that plays worse still comes out on top in the end: big plays. With his beautifully timed shuffle in front of A.J. Green for an interception in the second quarter, Brandon Carr stopped the previously unstoppable Bengals and gave Dallas' offense the field position it needed to get points.
No receiver had more than four catches or 62 yards, but Tony Romo kept the Cowboys in the game through a series of clutch plays in key moments.
That heads-up play by Carr — who is now one of the best remaining players of the defense — did more than enough to make up for the glaring holes the Cowboys defense had offered up in the first two drives.
Tony Romo makes something out of nothing
On a night when every Cowboys receiver came up quiet, Tony Romo came out loud. Romo exhibited a perfect balance of accuracy and awareness and once again displayed a Gumby-like ability to avoid the sack and make plays.
Even his lone interception was a net benefit, as the picked-off bomb to Dwayne Harris was easily better than what punter Brian Moorman was likely to come up with.
No receiver had more than four catches or 62 yards (compare that to Jason Witten's 18 catches against the Giants), but Romo kept the Cowboys in the game through a series of clutch plays in key moments.
He hit nine different receivers for the night, eluded a handful of should-be sacks and came up with a strike to Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.
DeMarco Murray plays workhorse, earns carrot
With only 53 rushing yards to his name on 21 carries (that's a pitiful 2.5 yards per carry), DeMarco Murray showed that he doesn't need to have a major night to be successful. Although no carry or catch went for more than seven yards, Murray kept the running game viable.
He even managed to pick up a few key short-yardage gains, none more important that his praiseworthy scamper to get the Cowboys in better field goal range on the final drive.
Dan Bailey once again proved that he is a lights-out kicker on any attempt less that 48 yards.
Just a few weeks ago, this game would have turned into a Romo passing exhibition at the start of the third quarter. Instead, Murray proved an adept workhorse, and the Cowboys offense stayed balanced on their way to a well-earned victory.
Credit where credit is due
Anthony Spencer came up with a game-saving sack in the fourth quarter, as did Jason Hatcher, who was around the quarterback all afternoon. Dwayne Harris deserves props for keeping his body off the ground on a punt return for what should have been a touchdown (had the refs not mistakenly called it dead), and Dan Bailey once again proved that he is a lights-out kicker on any attempt less that 48 yards.
Shame where shame is due
Phillip Tanner — arguably a better running back than Lance Dunbar — got pulled from the offense weeks ago for his inability to pass block. Since relegated to the punt team, Tanner's two blocking whiffs very nearly cost Dallas the game.
But the real embarrassment is special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who kept Tanner on the punt team after he let a Bengal hand on the ball during Brian Moorman's second punt. Moorman had a career-ruining night, and his future with the Cowboys may very well be in jeopardy.
At least no Cowboys were as bad as the Cincinnati receiving core, which couldn't catch anything that Andy Dalton placed on their hands. Except, of course, for Rob Ryan, who should be ashamed of himself for verbally fighting with a player on the field.
The drunken pirate personality is fine when Ryan is guaranteeing wins against the Atlanta Falcons, but it's not so appealing when he gets a penalty for cursing out an opposing player on the field.