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If the Cowboys are playing, expect a tight game

Dallas Cowboys punter Mat McBriar holds as Dan Bailey kicks a field goal against the Washington Redskins during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 26, 2011, in Arlington, Texas. Dallas Cowboys punter Mat McBriar holds as Dan Bailey kicks a field goal against the Washington Redskins during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 26, 2011, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
By Jaime Aron
AP Pro Football Writer / September 27, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas—Say this much about the Dallas Cowboys under Jason Garrett: They sure don't get blown out.

Then again, they don't blow anyone out, either.

Over their past nine games, the Cowboys have won or lost by a field goal every time. It's the longest such streak in NFL history -- by three, of course.

Dallas is 5-4 in this white-knuckle stretch, having won the past two. The way wounded quarterback Tony Romo and rookie kicker Dan Bailey combined to pull out both wins shows that this club is becoming comfortable dealing with adversity and late-game pressure.

It's good for ratings, but not necessarily Garrett's vocal cords. His voice was raspy following an 18-16 victory Monday night that featured six field goals, no touchdowns and, most of all, a 2-1 start that guarantees the Cowboys won't repeat their toxic 1-7 start from last season.

Dallas also can savor its first winning record since the end of the 2009 season, and being part of a three-way tie atop the NFC East.

"When the whole season ends up getting written and the book's done on the year, they don't ask you what happened in week two or three or four or six, why you lost or won. It's a 'W' or an 'L,'" Romo said. "Some are ugly. Some you win going away. But at the end of the year, you need the wins. Tonight was a great example of us keep grinding, keep going forward."

Learning to win is a step in the evolution of every team, even this group filled with veteran leaders.

The Cowboys showed they'd forgotten how early last season, when close games kept turning into losses. The constant losing eventually broke their spirits and lopsided losses followed, so many that owner Jerry Jones fired coach Wade Phillips.

Garrett took over and immediately started changing the club's culture in big and small ways. The biggest is that they went 5-3 the rest of last season, and that they've picked up where they left off this season.

The weird part is their knack for keeping every game close. The NFL hasn't seen anything like this since the Raiders had a six-game stretch at the end of the 2004 season, and start of 2005.

"Two out of three games in the NFL last year were within one score in the fourth quarter," Garrett said. "We play a lot of those games. You have to understand and you have to believe you can make the plays when necessary."

Dallas has done it all in this brief season -- blow a big lead, wipe out a big deficit and play a nail-biter.

The Cowboys had a chance to pull out a stunning, convincing victory over the Jets in New York in the opener, but a pair of awful decisions by Romo turned a 14-point lead into a loss. It was the first time in franchise history that Dallas had ever blown such a big, late lead, putting some skeptics on an early collapse watch.

Predictions of doom seemed to be playing out when the Cowboys were losing by 14 early, and by 10 late the following week in San Francisco -- especially with Romo breaking a rib and Felix Jones separating a shoulder in that game.

Yet both played through pain and Dallas managed to get a tying field goal from Bailey at the end of regulation, and another in overtime for the win.

The pressure of those kicks was immense for an undrafted rookie who'd missed a mere 21-yarder on his only other try, way back on the game's opening drive.

While Monday night can't top the drama of that win, it was intense.

Dallas struggled to run and center Phil Costa even had trouble snapping the ball to Romo. Add in some poor route-running and a plethora of players playing in pain or out with injuries, and it's understandable why the Cowboys never reached the end zone.

They never trailed by more than a touchdown, but they only led by a field goal for 2:25 late in the first half, until getting the winning kick -- Bailey's sixth of the game -- with 1:42 left.

The defense was stout all night, keeping the Redskins to only one touchdown and three field goals, then came up with a turnover to end Washington's final drive.

It's too early to gauge the quality of Dallas' two wins. But the early indications are that they're pretty good. San Francisco and Washington haven't lost to anyone else, and the Jets are 1-1 in their other two games.

Maybe Dallas' next game will help clear things up.

The Cowboys will again be at home, against the unbeaten Lions, the conference's up-and-coming darlings.

Dallas will still be banged up because of the severity of the injuries and the slightly shortened week of recovery. They also will be going into their bye week, so players know relief is on the way.

"We feel like we are a really good team, but we have to go show it and play it," tight end Jason Witten said. "It's starting to come. We feel the confidence coming, and we just have to keep it going."

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