Cowboys turn back Panthers, 19-14

CHARLOTTE -- For a brief moment during the final minutes at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, it appeared the Dallas Cowboys were flirting with another late-game meltdown.
With players on both teams scurrying to get in position for a fourth-and-one snap and the Carolina Panthers operating in no-huddle mode, Cam Newton took a quick shotgun snap and completed a flare pass to Greg Olsen for an apparent first down. The Panthers, trailing by two, desperately needed to move those chains.
Not so fast. The play didn't count.

Timeout, Dallas.

"Damn right, we were calling a timeout," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said, recalling the sequence after a 19-14 victory snapped a two-game losing streak.

Officials had a delayed reaction in whistling the play dead, which is why it seemed the Panthers had earned a fresh set of downs. And there was a lot of screaming on the Dallas sideline. Ryan, rather than coach Jason Garrett, made the actually timeout call.

"It looked a little urgent," Ryan said. "I'm like, 'Hell, man. They're not recognizing the timeout!' But we got it done."

A week after poor communication contributed to bungled clock management in the final minute of a loss to Baltimore, Dallas got it right this time.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn't completely sold. He thought the Cowboys, unable to smoothly substitute, had too many men on the field. Yet he didn't challenge the word of the officials that the timeout came from the bench

When play resumed, Newton's pass over the middle for Louis Murphy was broken up by rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, who arrived a split-second early in crashing into the receiver but did not draw a flag.

"I can't complain," Claiborne said.

The Cowboys (3-3), who had taken the lead on a 28-yard field goal by Dan Bailey with 3:25 remaining, parlayed the turnover on downs into a 38-yard kick for the final margin.

They also earned some relief -- albeit probably only temporarily in the what-have-you-done-lately NFL. After the 31-29 loss at Baltimore -- when Dallas had just two snaps in the final 30 seconds before Bailey missed a 51-yard field goal try -- the Cowboys were targeted for a week of intense analysis, second-guessing and hard-core criticism.

That's to be expected with many NFL teams, but the spotlight burns hotter with the much-hyped Cowboys, who have remained one of the NFL's most popular teams despite winning just one playoff game in the past 15 seasons.

The buzz was fueled in recent days when team owner Jerry Jones insisted that he still sees the Cowboys as a Super Bowl contender. He saw Sunday's game as a must-win challenge to get the season back on track.

It wasn't pretty, but the Cowboys scratched out a win against a Panthers squad (1-5) with even worse problems. With running back DeMarco Murray out of the lineup due to a foot injury, the rushing game sputtered (85 yards, 2.7 per carry), but quarterback Tony Romo passed for 227 yards, including a tight 26-yard TD pass to Miles Austin (5 catches, 96 yards).

And for the first time this season, Romo finished a game without throwing an interception.

Meanwhile, the defense clamped down on Carolina's read-option attack when it mattered most. In addition to his fourth-down breakup, Claiborne snuffed out a threat midway through the second quarter with an easy end zone interception of Newton -- who seemed to panic as DeMarcus Ware barreled in for a hit.

There were just enough of these plays to make the difference.

"Where would we have been had we lost it?" Jones told USA TODAY Sports as he left the locker room. "Just think of the hill we would have had to climb."

Even with so much football left this season, there's a big difference between 2-4 and the .500 mark that leaves Dallas tied with Philadelphia for second place in the NFC East, behind the New York Giants (5-2). The Cowboys can make up more ground on Sunday, when the Giants visit Texas.

Garrett knows it will be another week on intense analysis. He felt the constant talk about clock management last week, and might anticipate what one of the topics will be this week.

Was he aggressive enough?

The Cowboys, then trailing 14-13, seemed willing to position themselves for Bailey's 28-yard field goal when running a draw play by Phillip Tanner on third-and-nine from the Panthers 15, rather than taking a shot with a pass.

Garrett was grilled about this in his post-game press conference.

A half-hour later, showered and dressed in his private dressing room, Garrett explained that the perception of the play-call didn't matter. Especially from a game where his defense forced four three-and-outs in 11 possessions.

"What we're trying to do is win the game," Garrett said. "Let's not do something stupid, so I can walk in the press conference and say, 'Dammit, I was aggressive!'

"In that situation, it was the best thing to do."

With more tests to come.