ARLINGTON, Texas — The golden rule in the NFL is the standings don't reveal how you win but how many games you win. That's why Dallas players weren't apologizing for a 16-10 victory Sunday afternoon over Tampa Bay at Cowboys Stadium.
“It definitely wasn't one of our best games,” said Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. “We had too many mistakes. We got a little sloppy. We've got to play better and all get on the same page ... but we got the win.”
Quarterback Tony Romo and the Dallas offense never found a rhythm. But the Cowboys won their home opener behind a dominant defense and three Dan Bailey field goals, the final kick set up by Dez Bryant's electric punt return.
“There will be three or four games that will be very hard on offense. It just happens every year,” Romo said. “In those games, you need your defense to step up and play an outstanding football game. To have a defense that can do that is a very exciting thing.”
Dallas' defense was so dominant that Tampa Bay had less than 100 yards of total offense with less than three minutes left in the game. At that point, the Bucs had nearly as many punts (eight) as first downs (nine) before they nearly doubled their output on a desperation drive.
The Buccaneers' only touchdown was scored on the opening possession. And it was gift wrapped.
A Romo interception set up the Bucs at Dallas' 29-yard line. Tampa Bay gained more than half of those yards on a questionable pass interference penalty. The Bucs also were aided by an offsides penalty and had to convert fourth-and-1.
The ultimate compliment for the Dallas defense was coach Jason Garrett tried a surprise onside kick that didn't work after the Cowboys took a 10-7 lead late in the first half.
“It's all about having each other's back,” said linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who recorded two sacks and forced two fumbles. “Being able to work through adverse times ... we never let them gain any momentum.”
Dallas' defense was dominant despite some shuffling in the secondary. Cornerback Brandon Carr played free safety for the first time since high school.
Carr replaced Gerald Sensabaugh, who was sidelined by a calf injury. Mike Jenkins started in Carr's cornerback spot. The secondary was further tested when starting strong safety Barry Church suffered a season-ending torn Achilles.
The one negative was the offensive line. It continues to be Dallas' biggest concern. Five false start penalties and two holding calls forced the offense to play “behind the chains” much of the game. Romo was sacked four times, including two vicious hits.
“Obviously, we have to get better,” Romo said. “We did not do some things we're accustomed to doing at a high level. The penalties definitely hurt us. They basically were able to drop eight guys (into coverage).”
Because of the offense's inability to sustain drives, Dallas wasn't assured a win until Bryant returned a punt 44 yards to the Tampa Bay 6 with less than five minutes left. Bryant hurdled the punter, which slowed him down just enough for two Buccaneer defenders to keep him out of the end zone.
“I felt something big needed to happen,” Bryant said. “The other 10 guys did their part. I felt I should have scored. But it's all good. We got the W.”
That was the mantra throughout the locker room.
At the end of the day, the Cowboys were tied with the Giants and Eagles atop the NFC East.
“This is a very, very satisfying win,” Romo said. “As you move through the season, these are the kind of wins you have to have. We've played better on offense before and lost. We've played better as a team with the way it looks and have lost.
“To win the game the way we did today really excites me and gives us a chance moving forward.”