IRVING, Texas – The soap opera that is the Dallas Cowboys' offense gets all the attention. The defense, however, is keeping them in the playoff hunt.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) fumbles after he was sacked by Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008, in Irving, Texas. The Giants recovered the ball.
DeMarcus Ware added three sacks to his NFL-leading total and the Cowboys took down Eli Manning eight times on their way to a crucial 20-8 victory Sunday night in a game where all eyes were otherwise on Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten.
With everyone watching to see how Romo would appease the two main rivals for his offensive affection, he pulled a fast one by tossing touchdowns to third receiver Patrick Crayton and seldom thrown-to fullback Deon Anderson. Then, with 2:16 left and Dallas trying to manage the clock, rookie Tashard Choice broke off a victory-sealing 38-yard touchdown run.
Finally, the Cowboys could exhale. After a late loss in Pittsburgh and a week of locker-room turmoil, Dallas (9-5) was back in control of its wild-card chances.
"It wasn't a pretty win but we got it done," Owens said.
The Cowboys are guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their last two games, but it won't be easy. Baltimore comes to Texas Stadium on Saturday night, then Dallas closes in Philadelphia.
The Giants (11-3) locked up the NFC East title when Dallas lost last Sunday, but suddenly things aren't going so well for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
New York has lost consecutive games for the first time since starting 0-2 last season, with both losses coming since star receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself and was lost for the season. This one featured its fewest points of the season and its first regular-season game without a touchdown since November 2004.
A win would've given the Giants a first-round bye and breathing room in the race for the No. 1 playoff seed. Instead, they head home tied with Carolina for the top spot heading into their matchup with the Panthers on Sunday night.
Romo was 20-of-30 for 244 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked four times, including back-to-back plays at the end of the first quarter that left him wincing in pain. He didn't miss a snap, but wasn't moving as well as he usually does.
Witten caught five passes for 44 yards and Owens had three catches for 38 yards. T.O. would've had more than that on one play had he caught the first pass thrown his way, but he couldn't haul it in, drawing boos from fans who also jeered him during pregame introductions.
Owens and Witten reportedly got into a tiff this week over the close relationship between Romo and his tight end. Earlier in the week, Owens, Crayton and Roy Williams went to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to discuss the distribution of passes.
After the Cowboys went up 14-3 midway through the fourth quarter, the trio of Romo, Owens and Witten were yukking it up on the sideline. All three were together again for a postgame interview with NBC and continued to laugh it all off.
"It's just part of playing football," Romo said. "We have a lot of highly competitive individuals who want to win. I give a lot of credit to T.O. and Jason for drumming this whole thing up to take attention away."
Choice ran for 91 yards on only nine carries, and was the leading receiver with 52 yards on four catches. It was his second straight big effort in relief of Marion Barber, who is slowed by a dislocated right pinkie toe. In yet another distracting storyline, Barber's toughness was questioned by owner Jerry Jones when he missed the Pittsburgh game. Barber started but struggled, gaining only 2 yards on eight carries.
Rounding out the wacky week was cornerback Terence Newman saying in a national radio interview that coaches needed to be as accountable for their mistakes as they expected players to be. He started this game with a 32-yard pass interference penalty, but then had two interceptions, including Manning's final pass.
"I think the coaches were accountable. That helped us," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said afterward, poking fun at it.
Manning was 18-of-34 for 191 yards with two interceptions. In two games against Dallas, he was sacked 12 times; he's been sacked only 11 times in the other 12 games combined.
It certainly didn't help that the Giants lost right tackle Kareem McKenzie to a back injury in the second quarter and left guard Rich Seubert went out with an illness in the second half.
Domenik Hixon caught six passes for 60 yards and Derrick Ward ran for 64 yards, but the Giants struggled to get anything going. Their only points came on a pair of field goals and a safety.
When these teams met Nov. 2, Romo was out with a thumb injury and the Cowboys hardly had a chance. New York ran for 200 yards on the way to a 35-14 victory.
Dallas' offense is obviously better with Romo back, but the defense also has been on quite a roll since that game.
This was the unit's third straight game with at least five sacks. They lead the NFL in that category as a team, and Ware leads the league with 19. He's now within reach of Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22 1/2.