LANDOVER, Md. – Maybe Tony Romo was being sly when he said it, but it was certainly noteworthy.
“That felt like an elimination game for us,” Romo said. “Obviously, we did what we needed to do to win this football game as a playoff game. Guys kept having belief and we came out on top.”
It wasn’t a true elimination game, of course. If the Philadelphia Eagles went on to lose to the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, then this outcome was moot. If the Eagles went on to win, this most certainly would have been an elimination game.
And we all know about Romo’s 1-6 mark in elimination games, a stat by which only he seems to be burdened.
Very little will be made this week of his 23 comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime; in that department, since Romo became the starter in 2006, he is second only to Peyton Manning.
Very little will be made of what he did Sunday.
But think of what was hanging over Romo, some of which has been his own doing.
He was a week removed from his two fourth-quarter interceptions that led to the Green Bay Packers' leaving AT&T Stadium with an almost unfathomable 37-36 victory. Romo’s decision to eschew a running play to throw a pass to Miles Austin was exhaustedly replayed over and over again. Suddenly, Romo’s relationship with Jason Garrett was called into question, with some believing the coach did not protect the quarterback in the media.
Romo was 51 weeks removed from his last trip to FedEx Field; he threw three interceptions in his most recent elimination game. The last interception came with three minutes to play and the Cowboys down three points. They ended up losing 28-18, and Romo labored out of the stadium with a back injury that would eventually require surgery.
On Dec. 30, 2012, the Cowboys started that drive at their own 15-yard line with 3:33 to play. On Sunday they started a drive on their 13 with 3:39 to play. Romo’s back was aching from a hit earlier in the game, and the Cowboys’ season was on the line.
Facing second-and-10 on the drive’s fourth play, Romo stepped up and away from the Redskins’ pressure. There was open field in front of him, but he had little in his legs because of the sore back. Terrance Williams broke free deep as Josh Wilson slipped. Romo hit him for a 51-yard gain.
That was followed by a 17-yard “smoke” route to Dez Bryant to the Washington 4. After two plays stalled, the Cowboys tried RB DeMarco Murray for a third time, but he was stymied to his left and lost 9 yards as he attempted to switch fields.
Fourth-and-goal from the 10.
Fourth and the season.
The Cowboys called timeout with 1:16 to play.
“We just felt we wanted to get everybody settled down,” Garrett said. “We wanted to bleed that clock a little bit. We knew it was going to be a one-down type of play for us. We were going to score or not score. So if we were to score we wanted to make sure they had as little time left on the clock, so I thought that was handled well, and I think the byproduct of that was that we got everybody calmed down after that emotional play before.”
More bad memories might have come to mind during the timeout. In the 2010 season opener at FedEx Field, Romo's would-be game-winning touchdown pass to Roy Williams on the final play was nullified because of Alex Barron's penalty.
This time, on fourth down, Romo had Jason Witten, Austin and Williams to his left and Bryant to his right. The Redskins rushed four, with Murray chipping Ryan Kerrigan before he moved down the field. With Rob Jackson, who intercepted a Romo pass to Murray last year, lurking to his left, the QB stepped up in the pocket.
“Tony recognized what they were trying to get accomplished, and what you have to do in that situation is buy a little time because there’s not very many holes in the zone initially,” Garrett said. “You have to give your guys a chance to wiggle free.”
As Romo stepped up in the pocket, Murray drifted down the field and wide. Romo found him at the 2, and Murray was able to plow into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Romo completed 4 of 6 passes for 93 yards on the drive and, for at least a few days, exorcised demons that chased him for a week, a year and his career.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games over the last three years, and I think a lot of that is because we’re not a football team that is going to go out and consistently win 40-10,” Romo said. “I think that’s everyone’s goal, but it’s not reality. The more times you put yourself in these situations, you’ve got to keep getting better. For us, it’s just, you have to have a stronger belief in yourself than the doubt of other people. I think our football team has that.”
Another elimination game looms next week.