Cowboys learn to close the deal

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is quick to point out that his team won close games in 2011. Overshadowing that is the fact that the Cowboys lost five games in which they had a lead in the fourth quarter last season.

That created many questions about whether the Cowboys were capable of closing out games, a staple of playoff teams.

This year, the Cowboys are 3-1 in games in which they've started the fourth quarter with a lead and 3-1 in games decided by three points or less.

The Cowboys' ability to close the deal has them in the playoff conversation with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

"We won some close games around here the last couple of years," Garrett said. "We had a number of drives where we've driven down and Dan Bailey has kicked the game-winning field goal. It's happened at the end of the fourth quarter, it's happened in overtime. So, that's happened for our team before. And you rely on the success of those situations and the experience in those situations to hopefully continue to do that."

Sunday's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was another example of how the Cowboys are finishing games. After the Cowboys tied the score 24-24 in the fourth quarter, the Dallas defense made several big plays on the last two possessions of regulation.

Faced with a third-and-4, the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer sacked Ben Roethlisberger, forcing the Steelers to punt with about three minutes to play.

On the Steelers' next possession, consecutive sacks by Sean Lissemore and Spencer eventually forced the Steelers into a long third-down situation that led to another punt.

In overtime, cornerback Brandon Carr intercepted a Roethlisberger pass. Carr's 36-yard return set up Bailey's game-winning, 21-yard field goal to secure the 27-24 victory.

"I think more than anything else it's been a team thing," Garrett said. "I don't think there is any question about that. [Sunday's] fourth quarter was a great example of that -- the defense coming up with stops, making sacks, special teams making plays, creating turnovers. Obviously, Brandon Carr's interception in overtime was the signature play of the ballgame and I thought we were effective at different times in the fourth quarter offensively as well."

In training camp, Garrett had his team practice late-game situations, whether it was throwing a Hail Mary into the end zone, trying to score with less than two minutes to play or trying to protect a lead late in a game.

Garrett had his team do extra running so conditioning wouldn't be an issue late in games. He didn't want his standout players on the sidelines worn down with the game on the line. If a standout was taken out, it would be because of performance or a strategic issue.

"That's not a unique emphasis to us," Garrett said. "I think everybody understands the importance of being really good in the fourth quarter, and you have to do that a lot of different ways. Certainly, you have to be in physical condition to be good to be able to execute the way you need to."

The Cowboys are 7-6 the last two seasons in games decided by three points or less and 10-12 in games decided by eight points or less.

You could say players have to learn how to win before it can snatch victories in close games. The same could be said of the coach, especially after Garrett mismanaged the clock in a loss at Baltimore this season. There wasn't a sense of urgency from the Cowboys after a long incompletion with 22 seconds left. The players jogged back to the huddle, and there appeared to be confusion regarding what to do on the sidelines.

Garrett lost nearly 10 seconds off the clock before settling on a 51-yard field goal attempt that Bailey missed.

After that loss, the Cowboys have developed a sense of urgency -- especially in the last two minutes.

It seems Garrett and the Cowboys have learned from their mistake, and the lesson has come at the best possible time. The Cowboys are one of the hottest teams in the league, having won five of their last six.

"The games in the NFL, if you look at them, are for the most part close week in and week out across the league," Garrett said. "You have to continue to play well in all three phases of your team at critical moments in the game."