It was a hard fight in Dallas on Sunday as two of the most successful teams in NFL history battled it out for a sliver of hope in making the playoffs.
Both teams entered the contest with a record of 7-6, and for the majority of the first half it was a slugging match on defense as both teams had trouble getting the ball into the end zone. The Cowboys drove the ball 56 yards on their first possession but had to settle for a field goal after a dropped pass by Dez Bryant. Consequently, Rob Ryan’s defensive unit kept the always-explosive Pittsburgh offense from dropping the hammer.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was playing only his second game since recovering from a shoulder injury, often times had to evade the oncoming blitz (which is arguably his strongest attribute, avoiding the sack) and toss it up, as he so often likes to do in the wake of a failed blitz. Sometimes, he was even forced to run it himself. As a result, the Steelers accumulated only 58 yards on their first three possessions combined. On their fourth drive they managed to get the ball within range for kicker Shaun Suisham to punch it in for 3 points.
One development that was obvious during this contest was the vastly improved performance of Dallas’ famously-porous offensive line. Tony Romo has a very well-known tendency to crumble in the face of constant pressure, and his offensive line has done very little to alleviate this open wound. On Sunday, however, the line proved to be not only useful but a crucial part of the Cowboys’ success in pushing against the Steeler’s defense, thereby minimizing the mistake factor. Tony Romo struggled to get wide receiver Dez Bryant early as Bryant is dealing with a broken finger, but on Dallas’ first possession of the second quarter Romo found his favorite target Jason Witten for a seam up the middle. The touchdown was Witten’s 96th reception on the season and put the Cowboys up 10-0 (before Pittsburgh would make their first field goal).
Of course, Pittsburgh made that field goal, and the teams continued to duke it out for the remainder of the half. Dallas continued to press hard on Roethlisberger, and it worked for the most part, but when Big Ben gets pressed he has a tendency to shake it and make big plays. It’s the centerpiece of his game and sure enough, with about a minute left in the half Roethlisberger took to the shotgun and shook two Dallas defenders—pump-faking it multiple times and dancing around the pocket for what seemed like forever—before finding tight ened Heath Miller on a short dump to the right, which Miller ran for a 30-yard touchdown. Dallas and Pittsburgh, the only two teams to have met three times in the Super Bowl, went into halftime all tied up 10-10.
The second half began with two short drives by both teams that ended in punts. On Dallas’ second possession Tony Romo burst out of the gate with nine straight passing plays, driving 80 yards downfield for an eventual touchdown on Dez Bryant’s 24 yard up-and-out route. The score extended Dez Bryant’s touchdown streak to six straight games and put Dallas up 17-10. Not to be outdone, Pittsburgh answered the call on their next drive, scoring on four plays and never seeing 3rd down. It happened on another evasive maneuver from Roethlisberger, who scrambled enough to buy time for a deep pass to an open Mike Wallace, who was tackled at the 2 yard line. Halfback Jonathan Dwyer would punch it in on the next play. And like that the game is tied again.
The war of attrition seems to reach a breaking point on the next Dallas drive as the suddenly-solid offensive suddenly starts to slack and allow Steeler defenders through. The short possession’s only highlight is a 12 yard run by Demarco Murray, who was pretty solid all day cutting his way downfield and avoiding routine tackles that most running backs get swallowed up by. Romo completes two throws for 9 yards, putting Dallas at 3rd and 1 on their own 46 yard line. The effort is to no avail, as Pittsburgh’s resident beat linebacker Jerome Harrison rushes past the line to sack a hurried Tony Romo for a 5-yard loss.
Pittsburgh responds with a 78-yard drive of its own that culminates in yet another touchdown, this time through a West Coast-style offense inching toward the red zone. The Steelers, who have not turned it over in the red zone all season, come through for their quarterback, who spots Antonio Brown in the flat and bullets the football into his hands for the easy score.
Dallas once again is forced to play from behind, and after a couple of penalties offset a couple of completions head coach Jason Garrett brings out the punting squad. Of course, usually the Cowboys are on the wrong end of “miraculous” developments in tight games like this, however this time they appear to be in someone’s good graces as Antonio Brown fumbles the run back at Pittsburgh’s 44 yard line. The ball is recovered by Dallas and all of the sudden the Cowboys have another shot to even the score from an advantageous starting position. Romo & Co. come through once again, as they push forward into the red zone. They get to the 3 yard line and appear to stumble, calling back-to-back post plays for Dez Bryant, who is tightly defended on both. Garrett opts for the apparently-surprising short run up the middle and Demarco Murray makes it look easy, tying the game again 24-24.
Pressure builds on the next Steelers possession until Roethlisberger is sacked by Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, which puts them just outside of field goal range. Dallas doesn’t do much on the ensuing drive, going 4 and out to give it right back to Pittsburgh. It’s at this point that the game takes another turn, as Dallas brings the heat on the Steelers offensive line, breaking through and sacking Ben Roethlisberger twice in a row, putting them at an unsalvageable 3rd & 26.
The defense has come through, and with 47 seconds left it’s time for Tony Romo’s offense to answer the call. Starting at Pittsburgh’s 49 yard line the Cowboys have to get at least 20 yards for kicker Dan Bailey to hope to have a shot at splitting the uprights. Nope. Incomplete passes to Miles Austin and Jason Witten result in absolutely no movement and Dallas is forced to punt for the touchback. Big Ben kneels it out and we go to overtime. Though, that wouldn’t last for long.
Pittsburgh wins the coin toss and Roethlisberger throws his first interception of the game two plays into the drive. Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr is the recipient of the gift and runs it all the way back to the Pittsburgh 1 yard line. No reviews, no confusion. Carr snatched it up and stayed in bounds for the 36-yard run back.
Romo kneels it for a full play clock and Garrett brings out the kicking team. The short field goal is nailed by Dan Bailey and the Dallas Cowboys go up 16-15 al-time on the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving the NFC East with a three-way tie for first place, with only the lonely Eagles out of the mix.