CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's been awhile since the Dallas Cowboys relied this heavily on their defense.
But that's exactly what coach Jason Garrett did in Dallas' 19-14 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Faced with a third-and-4 at the Carolina 18 and the Cowboys leading by two points, Garrett elected to run the ball and kick a field goal rather than try to deliver a knockout punch with his offense. In so doing, he put his defense on the field with 53 seconds left to close out the game.
They answered the call, stopping the Panthers at midfield.
Garrett said he made the decision to run the ball because he was confident his defense, ranked second in the league, could hold the Panthers.
"We trust our defense immensely," Garrett said. "Our defense is outstanding and they've played great all year long."
"Defensively, when were out there it's all about closing the game," defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "(Garrett) having the confidence in the defense and saying OK we're going to kick a field goal and leave you guys out there, I know you guys are ready for this challenge."
While Tony Romo would have loved a chance to throw the ball at that point, he said he agreed with the call.
"You weigh what coverages they've been playing throughout the day," Romo said. "You also look at how well your defense has played throughout the day. ... It's very hard to be in their position, 53 seconds left, and you need a touchdown."
Romo knows how to win a close game, something Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers still haven't figured out.
Romo led the Cowboys into field-goal range and Dan Bailey converted a 28-yarder with 3:25 remaining to lift the Dallas Cowboys to a 19-14 win on Sunday.
Bailey had four field goals and Romo threw for 227 yards and a touchdown as the Cowboys defeated the Panthers for the ninth straight time in the regular season. The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Cowboys (3-3) and helped ease some pressure from their highly criticized 31-29 loss to Baltimore last week in a game marred by poor clock management.
"When you think about some of the adversity we've encountered this season, our focus remains on just getting better," Ware said. "We have been doing that, and this week being able to go out and close a game let us know that hey, we can do it."
Romo said the Cowboys never bought into the idea that the sky was falling after last week's loss.
"You know that every week you're either great or terrible — or at least semi-terrible or semi-great," Romo said. "What you find in this league is all you need to do is figure out how to get better and play your best football when it counts."
Just in case everyone wasn't buying in, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett invited former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs — yes, their old rival — to speak to players at the team's chapel service Saturday night.
Gibbs' message was that everyone makes mistakes, but what's important is how you handle adversity.
The Cowboys seemed to listen.
"We did a good job of bouncing back and finding a way to win a game today," Garrett said.
For the Panthers (1-5) it was a case of another game in which they were close enough to win in the fourth quarter but couldn't finish. Carolina had similar chances in their two previous games against Atlanta and Seattle.
Newton, who finished 21 of 37 for 233 yards with one touchdown and an early interception in the red zone, said he doesn't know why the Panthers can't win close games.
"Whether it's me, I don't know. Whether it's the coordinator, I don't know. Whether it's the players overall, I don't know," Newton said. "(But) we got to change that man."
The Panthers finished fifth in points last season, averaging 25.3 points per game, but have scored more than 14 points in only two of their six games this year.
"Instead of keeping the game close, I'm looking forward to a game where I ... we put up 35 points. Everybody does," Newton said.
This game had its share of drama — and controversy.
On a fourth-and-1 at their 39 with 2:11 remaining and trailing by two, the Panthers caught Dallas' defense trying to change personnel, and Newton rushed to the line. He quickly took the snap and completed a pass to Greg Olsen for an apparent first down, but officials ruled the Cowboys called timeout before the snap.
On the next play, cornerback Morris Claiborne collided with Panthers receiver Louis Murphy before the ball arrived, but no flag was thrown and the Cowboys took over on downs.
"I felt like I got pushed early," Murphy said. "He kind of hooked me and pushed me in the back before the ball got there."
Claiborne saw it differently.
"I felt I had good coverage," he said.
NOTES: Cowboys WR Dez Bryant started despite a groin injury. On Bryant's first play he was penalized for unnecessary roughness after shoving Panthers players following a punt return. ... Cowboys C Phil Costa was carted off the field in the second quarter with his right leg in an air cast.
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