LANDOVER, Md. — On fourth down, feeling the season was on the line, Tony Romo dropped back, scrambled forward and found the correct color uniform. DeMarco Murray made the catch, his momentum taking him into the end zone for the winning score.
For much of the second half, Romo and Dallas Cowboys had flirted with their usual December swoon.
A recently signed fullback lost a fumble. The quarterback threw a bad interception. An eight-point lead became a nine-point deficit. Murray lost 9 yards on a third-and-goal at the 1.
But there was one chance left to pull off a win. Romo-to-Murray converted the fourth-and-goal at the 10 with 1:08 remaining Sunday, giving the Cowboys a 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins.
“We just had to make a play,” Dallas receiver Dez Bryant said. “Tony did a Houdini.”
It’s a magic moment that matters only if the Cowboys can win one more. The victory ended a two-game skid — as well as a four-game December losing streak — and sets up a winner-take-all, regular-season finale for the NFC East title next week, when the Cowboys (8-7) host the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Today we felt like we were playing for everything,” Romo said. “Next week will be the same thing.”
The Cowboys, who beat Philadelphia 17-3 on Oct. 20, set themselves up to quash two years of 8-8, collapse-around-Christmas misery.
“I know in some ways we’ve gotten hit with just the fact of losing the last couple of years in the final game,” Romo said. “I think we’re the only team that keeps getting themselves in position to win the NFC East every year — that’s a credit. It’s also a negative in the fact that we didn’t do it the last couple of years.”
The Cowboys melted down big-time last week against the Green Bay Packers, blowing a 23-point lead with Romo throwing two interceptions in the waning minutes.
On Sunday, the Cowboys fell flat in the third quarter instead of the fourth, leaving just enough time for a comeback.
“Coming back and playing well and working hard can help your character. Now, I don’t recommend the way we came back today as a way to get there,” Dallas owner Jerry Jones said with a smile. “I would’ve liked for it to be a little easier and confident.”
The Redskins (3-12) aren’t building much of anything. They lost their seventh straight, the second in a row by one point, both with Kirk Cousins starting in place of shut-down franchise player Robert Griffin III.
Pierre Garcon (11 catches, 144 yards) provided the home team highlight by breaking Art Monk’s single-season franchise reception record, while veteran linebacker London Fletcher played in what is expected to be his final home game before retiring. Embattled coach Mike Shanahan clinched his worst record in his 20 seasons as a head coach.
“Everybody on the team is fed up at this point,” Washington linebacker Perry Riley said. “We should be winning. Need to be winning. We’re not winning. And that’s frustrating.”
Romo completed 17 of 27 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns and played much of the game with back pain. He was limping noticeably after a couple of plays in the fourth quarter.
“I took a hit that kind of triggered it a little bit. … I felt it after that play, the rest of the game,” Romo said. “You just play through it, just like anything in football.”
The Cowboys led 14-6 at halftime before committing turnovers on back-to-back drives — a fumble by Tyler Clutts and an interception by DeAngelo Hall. The Redskins scored on three straight possessions and took a 23-14 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But Romo converted a fourth-and-6 at the Washington 40-yard line to set up a field goal that cut the lead to six with 6:09 to play. The Cowboys started the go-ahead drive at their 13 with 3:39 remaining. A 51-yard pass to Terrance Williams set up the winning score, with the Cowboys surviving the 9-yard loss by Murray when knocking on the door at the 1.
“A couple of self-inflicted wounds in the second half hurt us,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “But you keep playing. Our guys scratched, clawed, and fought.”
Notes: Michael Spurlock, signed Wednesday because of an injury to Dwayne Harris, set up a TD with a 62-yard punt return in the first quarter. … Murray ran for 96 yards, becoming the first Cowboys back to rush for 1,000 yards since Julius Jones in 2006. … The Cowboys are 5-0 in the NFC East; the Redskins are 0-5. … Injuries: Cowboys RB Phillip Tanner (head) and Redskins LBs Brian Orakpo (right groin) and Nick Barnett (sprained left knee).