IRVING, Texas - Lead change after lead change, spectacular play after spectacular play, head-slapper after head-slapper, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles played a game Monday night that was more gripping than many movies.
A good ol’ fashioned Western, Tony Romo called it.
“It’s a good thing we were Clint Eastwood,” he said, smiling after the 41-37 victory.
There were the highs of a long touchdown pass to Terrell Owens and a longer kickoff return by Felix Jones. The lows of back-to-back flubs by Romo that gave Philadelphia touchdowns 14 seconds apart. And that was just the first 17 minutes.
Then came Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson losing a touchdown because he flicked the ball backward before crossing the goal line, Donovan McNabb showing the fancy footwork of his youth and Brian Westbrook scoring twice on runs, once on a catch, only to have the McNabb-Westbrook connection go wrong on a fourth-quarter handoff.
When it was done—after Marion Barber’s second second-half touchdown and after the Dallas defense snuffed a reception followed by two laterals—the Cowboys came away with a win in their final home opener at Texas Stadium, and the highest-scoring of the 98 games between these teams.
“We know that no game is going to be perfect,” Owens said. “There’s going to be interceptions, fumbles, missed assignments by everyone. But as a team, we came to play tonight. Offensively, defensively, I think everyone stepped up when they needed to.”
Romo was 21-of-30 for 312 yards with three touchdowns, plus an interception and a lost fumble that came on consecutive snaps, taking Dallas from near-breakout to near-breakdown.
“We kept believing in each other,” Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. “Everyone said `Hey, hang in there, we’re going to come out on top,’ and we did!”
Philadelphia, coming off an impressive romp in its opener, went from trailing 14-6 to leading 30-21 just before halftime. The Eagles were still up 37-31 after Westbrook’s third score, early in the fourth quarter, but his fumble on the next series led to the seventh and final lead change.
“These were two great teams going at it,” McNabb said. “There are a lot of positives we can take from this game. But that’s not important right now. What we need to do is focus on the working on the negatives. That’s going to make us a better team.”
This was the rare September game that will linger in the memory of anyone who saw it. For anyone who didn’t, think back to Romo’s big comeback in Buffalo on a Monday night last year, or to Romo’s playoff goof in Seattle two years ago, or McNabb’s great escape on a scramble four years ago or even Leon Lett’s premature touchdown celebration in the January 1993 Super Bowl. This game had plays reminiscent of all those, most in the first half.
“It was one of the best games I’ve not only seen, but been a part of,” Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said.
Owens had 89 yards on three catches, including a 72-yard touchdown on Dallas’ first series that he punctuated with the kind of arm-flapping celebration he used to do for Philadelphia, and a 4-yard touchdown. His first TD moved him into second place on the NFL’s career receiving touchdown list; he finished at 132, well behind Jerry Rice’s record of 197.
“It doesn’t matter what they say about me now,” Owens said. “The Lord has obviously blessed me with a lot of talent.”
T.O. didn’t catch a pass in the second half, but took pride in opening the middle for tight end Jason Witten, who caught seven passes for 110 yards. He had a 42-yarder to set up a 51-yard field goal before halftime, then a 32-yarder on the game-winning drive. Witten did most of his damage with a shoulder separated in the first half. Dallas also lost safety Roy Williams to a broken right arm.
McNabb was 25-of-37 for 281 yards with a touchdown and four sacks, two on the final series. He also matched Ron Jaworski’s club mark of 175 career TD passes.
Jackson caught six passes for 110 yards, becoming only the second player in NFL history to open his career with consecutive 100-yard games. The other was Don Looney, also for Philadelphia, in 1940.
Westbrook ran 18 times for 58 yards for two touchdowns, and caught six passes for 45 yards and another score.
“We came so close,” tight end L.J. Smith said. “We knew it would be a tough battle. To lose like this hurts.”
This game was destined to be different when the opening kickoff went out of bounds between the 1-yard line and the pylon.
The long scores by Owens and Jones, then a great pass breakup by rookie Mike Jenkins got the old stadium rocking. Then it got quiet real fast.
Romo avoided a sack, then made the kind of “impulse play” former coach Bill Parcells hated, resulting in an interception. Westbrook scored on a short screen, cutting Dallas’ lead to one point.
The Cowboys fumbled the kickoff, recovered at the 5, then got pushed back by a false start. Romo lost the ball three times on the next snap and Philadelphia’s Chris Gocong landed on it in the end zone for a touchdown.
Dallas came right back with another long kickoff return by Jones and another TD by Owens.
Next came Jackson’s early celebration of a long touchdown. The Cowboys challenged and, with all the extra cameras for a Monday night game, officials easily found an angle that showed him letting go too soon. Using similar logic to the controversial fumble-whistled-dead in the Broncos-Chargers game Sunday, the ball was put at the 1 and Westbrook scored on the next play.
The unbelievable part of Jackson’s goof: He did it before. In a 2005 high school all-star game, Jackson spread his arms for a swan dive into the end zone, only to land at the 1.
McNabb kept the next drive alive by somehow breaking free from linebacker Greg Ellis and running for 10 yards. McNabb came away smiling and dancing. After another run that took five defenders to drop him, Philadelphia kicked a 22-yard field goal to go up 30-21 with 45 seconds left until halftime.
The Cowboys went ahead on a 17-yard touchdown catch by Barber midway through the third quarter. The Eagles came right back, with McNabb overcoming a second-and-21 by scooting out of two near collisions, avoiding an ankle tackle and zipping the football like a fast-pitch softball to Westbrook. The drive ended with Westbrook churning into the end zone for his third touchdown and a 37-31 lead.
Want an encore? Well, the teams meet again in Philadelphia. In the season finale.
The 54 first-half points were second-most in a Monday night game. … The Cowboys hadn’t had a kickoff returned for a touchdown in the regular season since Randal Williams did it, also against Philadelphia, in 2003. … Owens also broke a tie with Cris Carter for the second-most games with multiple touchdowns.