Leading, but not by much, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys were desperately in need of a big play.
Jake Delhomme helped them make several.
Terence Newman returned an interception 27 yards for a lead-stretching touchdown with 5:07 left, then rookie linebacker Victor Butler got two sacks and forced a fumble on the next series, sending Dallas to a 21-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.
Considering the Cowboys were coming off a last-second loss in the opener of their $1.15 billion stadium, a crowd of 90,588 was especially tense until the defense put the game away. The biggest sigh of relief likely came from team owner Jerry Jones.
"It certainly does feel good," Jones said. "The way it went so early, it just felt like maybe we ought to check this thing out for Grim Reapers living in the back someplace."
Dallas (2-1) trailed 7-0 at halftime and was booed by fans. Although the defense was playing well and running backs Felix Jones and Tashard Choice were easing the load on Romo, the quarterback was being so careful to avoid the mistakes that doomed the Cowboys the previous week that the offense struggled to turn long drives into points.
When Romo threw a pair of incompletions from the 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Dallas was up by only six points. Then Newman stepped in front of a pass to Steve Smith, darted toward the right corner of the end zone and dived in. Butler capped the night with his pair of sacks and the turnover, giving the Cowboys three of each after not having any of either over the first two weeks.
"Everybody on the outside was pressing the panic button, but not us," linebacker Bradie James said. "We knew we had a bunch of ball left to play. There was still a lot of time to improve."
The Panthers sure hope so.
After going 12-4 and winning their division, they're 0-3 and headed into a bye week. This is their worst start since 0-7 in 1998 and Delhomme has seven interceptions, seven sacks and two fumbles.
"We have lots of football left," coach John Fox said. "We're not even a quarter through the season. We've had three-loss skids before. We have to stick together."
Smith insisted Delhomme wasn't to blame for the game-breaking mistake. Fox said a slant was called and Smith said he changed the route.
"I put Jake in a bad situation," Smith said. "The bottom line is that I (hurt) Jake."
Delhomme was 22 of 33 for 220 yards, but here are the only numbers that mattered: Carolina's six second-half drives ended with four punts, an interception and a fumble.
The effort showed what Cowboys coach-defensive coordinator Wade Phillips thought his unit was capable of doing. They showed they could stop the pass in the opener, then showed they could stop the run in the second game. This time, they put it all together, with Mike Jenkins coming up with a first-half interception and Jay Ratliff getting the season's first sack.
Their only blemish was a 90-yard drive just before halftime that put the Panthers up 7-0. Even with that, Carolina had only 271 yards and 15 first downs. The Panthers were 1 of 8 on third downs.
"Before the game we talked about how our defensive line and linebackers did their job last week and how we didn't do our job," Newman said. "So I told them 'Hey it's on us. We've got to shut these guys down.' We let this team down last week and we have to make up for it this week."
Dallas was without running back Marion Barber because of a bruised thigh, but hardly missed him as fill-in starter Felix Jones broke off plays of 16, 18 and 20 yards on the first two drives. Yet Romo failed to turn them into any points and the Cowboys went into halftime without any points and hearing a lot of boos from a crowd that was louder than last week, even though there were 15,000 fewer people, because the retractable roof and end-zone doors were closed.
Romo was 22 of 33 for 255 yards with no touchdowns and no turnovers. He didn't throw many deep balls, rarely threw into traffic and often looked for his security blanket, tight end Jason Witten (nine catches for 77 yards) as he regained his footing following the second-worst passer rating of his career.
"It's all about improving and doing it on the field," Romo said. "That was my sole focus this week, to understand why I did certain things and not make those mistakes again, and come out and be a better quarterback and help this team win."
Jones finished with 94 yards on only eight carries, and another 20 yards on a pass before leaving with a strained left knee in the third quarter.
Choice had 82 yards on 18 carries, including a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 36 yards.
Dallas' Nick Folk ended a streak of 16 straight field goals by missing a 40-yarder on the opening drive, but made kicks of 24 and 19 in the second half.
Defense saves the day
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