Defense dominates as feuding Cowboys grab much-needed win

IRVING, Texas -- After all he and the Dallas Cowboys went through the last week, Tony Romo was one clutch play from the ultimate peacemaker: a victory.

And, for that clutch play, he threw to good pal Jason Witten.

This time, Terrell Owens was fine with that.

Witten gained 11 yards on a third-and-9 late in the fourth quarter, keeping the New York Giants from getting the ball back with time to pull off a comeback. Then rookie Tashard Choice followed with a 38-yard touchdown run and the Cowboys beat the Giants 20-8 on Sunday night to help their playoff chances and, perhaps, ensure at least a week's worth of locker-room harmony.

"It was just something we had to deal with," said Owens, no stranger to controversy. "We just stuck together. We knew what was important and that was the game today."

While the soap-opera offense gets all the attention, the defense is doing much of the work in keeping the Cowboys (9-5) in the playoff hunt.

DeMarcus Ware sacked Eli Manning on New York's first snap and the pressure never stopped. Ware finished with three sacks, upping his NFL-leading total to 19, and Dallas rang up a season-high eight. It was the unit's third straight game with at least five.

Cornerback Terence Newman, involved in his own tiff this week, intercepted two passes and the Cowboys kept New York (11-3) without a touchdown for the first time since November 2004.

The Giants locked up the NFC East title last Sunday, but have lost consecutive games for the first time since starting 0-2 last season. Both losses have come since star receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself and was lost for the season. Yet New York can flush it all away by winning its next game, at home Sunday night against Carolina in a game that will decide the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

"I'm disappointed, a little frustrated, but not concerned," said Manning, who was 18-of-34 for 191 yards with two interceptions. "We have to get back to playing good football. We'll have our hands full. The defense is playing well, but offensively we're not doing our part."

The Cowboys spent more time this week answering questions about their own squabbles than about playing the Giants. It started with Jerry Jones questioning the toughness of running back Marion Barber for missing last week's loss at Pittsburgh because of a dislocated right pinkie toe, and it ended with Newman accusing coaches of not being as accountable for mistakes as they expected players to be.

The main event was talk of Owens being upset about the close relationship between Romo and Witten. There was a confirmed meeting of Owens and two other receivers with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, and reports of a late-week confrontation between Owens and Witten, which the Cowboys deny happened.

T.O. was booed during pregame introductions and again when he dropped a long pass on Dallas' first series. But once the Cowboys went up 14-3 midway through the fourth quarter, 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."

Added Owens: "Winning cures everything."

Romo was 20-of-30 for 244 yards and two touchdowns -- to third receiver Patrick Crayton and seldom thrown-to fullback Deon Anderson, of all people -- and no interceptions. Romo was sacked four times, including back-to-back plays at the end of the first quarter that left him wincing in pain with a back problem. 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. The offensive star actually was Choice.

A fourth-round pick from Georgia Tech, Choice followed his steller play against the Steelers with 91 yards on only nine carries, and he was the leading receiver with 52 yards on four catches. Barber started but gained only 2 yards on eight carries.

Dallas went up 7-0 early in the second quarter and made it 14-3 on Romo's lob to Anderson with 12:13 left.

But then Romo was tackled in the end zone for a safety and the Giants followed with a field goal. Now New York was within 14-8 and a defensive stand could get the ball back to Manning for a go-ahead touchdown, the kind of drive that could've been devastating to Dallas' playoff hopes for so many reasons -- from this week's strife to a reminder of last week's late loss to Pittsburgh to their decade-long history of disastrous Decembers.

They quickly faced third down, and had converted only 1-of-9 at that point. Barber got another one with a 9-yard burst around the right end. Then came another third down, the one when Romo threw to Witten dragging across the field. The tight end nearly was tackled shy of the first-down marker but he fought for the extra yards.

Finally, the Cowboys could exhale.

Dallas is guaranteed a playoff spot by winning its last two games, but it won't be easy. Baltimore comes to Texas Stadium on Saturday night, then the Cowboys close in Philadelphia.

Game notes
In two games against Dallas, Manning was sacked 12 times; he's been sacked only 11 times in the other 12 games combined. ... New York's pass-blocking was hurt by losing RT Kareem McKenzie (back) in the second quarter and LG Rich Seubert (flu) in the second half. ... Ware is within reach of Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22 1/2. ... Greg Ellis had two sacks, Chris Canty got 1 1/2, Bradie James had one and Anthony Spencer had the other half.