IRVING, Texas – Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can't help but think about the New York Giants going from 7-7 to a Super Bowl title last season. It probably wouldn't hurt to remind him that the Green Bay Packers lost half their defense and won a championship a year earlier — at his stadium, no less.
"You can legitimately look at how the Giants played year, what they did at the end of the year and how they took it all the way," Jones said after Dallas beat the Steelers in front of thousands of Terrible Towel-waving fans at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. "And that's not unrealistic to think that that can happen to you."
Maybe Jones was a little giddy after the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh 27-24 in overtime for their third straight win. He can be excused, though. Dallas is tied for first in the NFC East after winning three straight games and five of six, and for the first time in weeks doesn't need help to reach the playoffs.
The Cowboys (8-6) are in if they beat New Orleans on Sunday at home and win at Washington in two weeks. The game against the Redskins could end up looking a lot like last season's finale, when the Giants beat the Cowboys in New Jersey with a playoff berth on the line.
The Green Bay correlation is even more striking. The Cowboys have lost about as many defenders as the Packers did when they beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 2010 season.
Four Dallas starters are on injured reserve, and a fifth — defensive tackle Jay Ratliff — won't play again in the regular season after sports hernia surgery. Nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick (left hand and wrist) is out for the year as well, and rookie starter Morris Claiborne missed the Pittsburgh game with a concussion. Claiborne said Monday he thought he would play against the Saints (6-8).
Ratliff's backup, Josh Brent, won't return this year following his arrest on an intoxication manslaughter charge in the one-car accident that killed teammate and close friend Jerry Brown.
Yet somehow, the Cowboys keep winning, with plenty of help from the defense. Brandon Carr set up a touchdown with an interception in a 20-19 win at Cincinnati the day after the crash that killed Brown. Dallas attended a private memorial service for Brown last Tuesday, then Carr won the Pittsburgh game by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger on the second play of overtime and returning it to the Steelers' 1.
Dan Bailey kicked a winning 21-yard field goal a week after his 40-yarder as time expired beat the Bengals.
"You never know how you're going to handle situations when you're dealt with adversity like we had last week," said tight end Jason Witten, who caught a touchdown from Tony Romo for the first time this season Sunday against the Steelers. "Everyone handled it professionally. Yeah, we were emotional. We stayed together and stayed focused."
It would have been easy for the Dallas defense to give up after Thanksgiving, when linebacker Bruce Carter sustained a season-ending elbow injury in the most demoralizing game of the season. The Cowboys wilted in the return of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III to Texas. The former Baylor star dazzled in a 28-point second quarter that led the Redskins to a 38-31 win.
The loss of Carter meant the top two linebackers were gone for the season, and the roster shuffle was on. Brady Poppinga joined Ernie Sims as veterans brought in off the street to help Dan Connor, who figured to be a backup when he signed as a free agent. Second-year player Alex Albright, Dallas' third-leading tackler against Pittsburgh after Sims went out with a concussion, and rookie Kyle Wilber were much higher on the depth chart than planned.
At least the Cowboys knew all the names of replacement linebackers on game day. When safety Charlie Peprah — another off-the-street pickup — injured a foot in practice after he'd already dealt with a concussion, the Cowboys brought in Sterling Moore so late on a Friday they barely had a chance to talk to him before putting him on the active roster two days later against Philadelphia.
And then there was Michael Coe, a former New York Giants cornerback who recovered a fumble against Dallas in October before he was released and signed by the Cowboys last week. He was No. 36 before Sunday's game. He was No. 20 during it.
"We're battling and peaking," Romo said. "I said earlier we need name tags. A couple of the guys earlier, I said, 'Great job No. 20?' I know his name is Coe now, but there a bunch of guys who just got here that are playing and getting a bunch of minutes."
At least Romo knows Coe's name now. Defensive end Jason Hatcher was calling him "a guy from New York" after beating the Steelers. Who's the cornerback from New York?
"I don't know," Hatcher said. "You see what I'm saying?"
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