Getting to 5-1 hasn't always been easy for the Dallas Cowboys. After stumbling out of the gate against the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas needed a huge comeback against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3. The Cowboys mounted another this past week in Seattle to knock off the defending champs.
Their shocking defeat of a Seahawks team that had lost one of its previous 19 games at home almost didn't happen, though, and it took a brilliant, absurdly low-probability, gutsy play by Tony Romo on a third-and-20 late in the game to put the Cowboys alone in the NFL spotlight after six weeks.
Here's what the official boxscore says:
3-20-DAL 31 (4:55 4th Quarter) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep right to T.Williams ran ob at SEA 46 for 23 yards.
I feel like they should add an exclamation mark to plays like this, because that vapid, emotionless fragment does nothing to capture what might be the play of the year thus far in the NFL.
With 4:55 remaining in the game, the Seahawks led 23-20 despite Dallas' huge advantage in yards, first downs and time of possession. Seattle had Dallas on the ropes, though, and after Romo missed Dez Bryant to the short left, the Cowboys faced a third-and-20 and the prospect of giving the ball back to the Seahawks so they could run the clock out.
At this moment, according to Advanced NFL Analysis Win Probability Chart, which is based on extensive modeling of previous game situations of this down/distance/time, the Cowboys had an 18 percent chance of winning the game.
For this play in particular to be successful, the odds were even worse. To this point in the season, NFL teams were a combined 1-for-55 on third-and-20 or longer. That's about a 1.8 percent success rate.
Even without consulting the odds, the gut feeling, whether you were watching the game live or on television, was the same. Despite being largely outplayed by Dallas, Seattle's crowd was back into it, and seemingly had the Cowboys on the ropes. Dallas was deep in its own end, faced a nearly impossible third-down conversion and was going to punt the ball back to a team that could potentially grab a couple of first downs to run the clock out.
Romo wasn't having it. At the snap, Dallas' protections get all wonky, and left tackle Tyron Smith runs into DeMarco Murray, who tries to chip and release. Bruce Irvin easily sideswipes this chip and has a clear, open lane on Romo. Romo reverse pivots into his signature spin move, evades another two oncoming rushers, signals to Terrance Williams to head to the sideline, then throws on the run.
We've seen this trademark play a hundred times, and as Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll mentioned after the game, Seattle even "zeroed in on" that exact spin move in practice that week, in preparation for their rush packages.
As for what was going through Romo's head at that moment?
"I think when you turn and come out of movement, you just try and find guys," Romo said after the game. "You don't just find Terrance, you find the defensive backs. You find where they are and then find out which guys are going to get a first down, which guys are not on your team."
Well, for a bird's eye view of what he was trying to see downfield, here's where Seattle's defensive backs were located in relation to his receivers, just as he spun out of pressure.
"So you put it over the first guy and away from the second guy," said Romo. "Terrance just did all the rest. He made a great play."
The first guy would be Steven Terrell, recently signed off of Seattle's practice squad. The second would be Marcus Burley, a nickel corner forced to play outside due to Byron Maxwell's injury earlier in the game.
As he said, Romo floated the pass over Terrell, who is in the flats on Witten, and in front of Burley, who has deep-coverage responsibility.
Williams "does the rest."
Jason Witten holds off on going for the pass, either knowing he wasn't the intended target or that it was out of his reach.
The play is reviewed, and stands. The Cowboys would pounce, and the Seahawks would subsequently fold after their devastating failure to get off the field. Dallas would run DeMarco Murray three straight times. He picked up 46 yards and a touchdown with ease. Lead taken. 27-23. Dallas' defense would hold.
"You have to make plays in the NFL, that's the difference," Cowboys' passing game coordinator Scott Linehan said after the game. "You can go back and say five plays that were the difference in winning and losing games. None were bigger than Terrance's catch."
Pete Carroll knew the gravity of that play, and spoke of it after.
"The game is in our hands then," he said. "Third-and-20, if we get out, then we're working to kill the clock and win the football game.
"It looked just like [what Romo did] in Houston [in Week 5]," Carroll continued, "I didn't see it clearly, how he escaped, but you saw how he beat one of the top players in football a week ago. He makes a great throw and catch, and puts them in the scoring zone and everything goes their way from there.
"Tony has magic about him, he always has, and he pulled it out right then and made an incredibly good play."