IRVING, Texas - After enduring critical injuries, narrow defeats and distracting side drama through the first three quarters of their season, the Dallas Cowboys arrived home around 5 a.m. Tuesday facing an improbable reality: All of their goals remain attainable.As slim as their chances still may be, the Cowboys, at 4-8, are just one game out of first place in the NFC East. They can thank their division counterparts for that outlook. The division has become a punch line, featuring no team better than two games under .500.
The Cowboys’ decision not to place injured quarterback Tony Romo, who broke his left collarbone a second time this season on Thanksgiving, on the injured reserve now looks like a prudent move. If Dallas somehow captures the division, could Romo make a grand return for the playoffs?“We say whatever it is, eight weeks, there’s still season left so we will play that situation out, but we are all behind Matt (Cassel) and what he’s going to do for our team,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Tuesday about the Romo decision. “We’ll see what happens if we get to that point.”After earning their first win of the season without Romo – a zany 19-16 Monday night victory against the Washington Redskins – to focus on a playoff run is still grossly premature. The remaining schedule, beginning Sunday at the revitalized Green Bay Packers, is daunting. It includes four playoff contenders, concluding with a rematch against the Redskins on Jan. 3 at AT&T Stadium.But there’s at least hope.“I would have never dreamed this,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the game Monday. “You can say it speaks to parity, and I guess it does. We are fortunate. We’ve got to get better though. We play these guys again. We’ve got some tough road games ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of work to do if we still want to keep our head up.”That the Cowboys managed to eke out the win against the Redskins was also improbable after turning the ball over three times and mismanaging the clock in the final minutes. With 1:26 to play in a tie game, running back Darren McFadden allowed himself to be pushed out of bounds at the Washington 6, which prevented the Cowboys from running critical time off the clock.“You should never go out of bounds in that situation,” Garrett said. “Ideally in that situation, you want to bleed it all the way down and not give them the chance to come back the other way.”Running out of bounds changed the circumstances. The Redskins didn’t have to burn a timeout, and it became more difficult for the Cowboys to run the clock down and kick a game-winning field goal with little time remaining.On the next play, McFadden raced into the end zone for the go-ahead score. Garrett said he believed the Redskins played legitimate defense and did not simply let McFadden score to save time on the clock.After the Redskins answered with a game-tying touchdown, the Cowboys won the game on Dan Bailey’s 54-yard field goal. Playoff hopes remain alive, and it may only take seven wins to win the league’s weakest division.There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that a decision on a second return for Romo could loom next month. But that’s not Garrett’s focus.