It wasn’t pretty by any means, but the Dallas Cowboys came out with a win they desperately needed.

By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys picked the Cleveland Browns to win Sunday’s game. It nearly happened.

The Dallas Cowboys won the game, 23-20, in overtime. In the final analysis, the Cowboys won the game in spite of themselves. The running game was anemic. The Browns committed 10 defensive penalties. The Cowboys’ offensive line played quite possibly its worst game of the season.

And yet Dallas won, most notably because a young Browns team could not close the deal, something they’ve had an issue with all season.

So Dallas moves to .500 for the season, a record of 5-5. They remain a game behind the New York Giants in the NFC East. They remain, mathematically, at least, a playoff contender. The Cowboys, however, should not be confused with a legitimate contender. They’re not. This win over Cleveland proved that beyond any doubt.

Here’s how it all broke down.

Run Offense:  Felix Jones had a nice rushing touchdown in the second half, showing some second effort at the goal line. The Cowboys rushed for 63 yards, gaining 3.0 yards per carry. It’s hard to tell if the Browns’ defensive line just played the run better or if the Cowboys’ offensive line was just terrible. There is some slack to be cut for the latter. Guard Mackenzy Bernadeau had to slide over to center to replace the injured Ryan Cook (who is playing for the injured Phil Costa). That meant veteran Derrick Dockery slid into Bernadeau’s guard spot and he looked overmatched. Left tackle Tyron Smith was hurt in the first half and Jeremy Parnell had to replace him. Parnell also looked overmatched at times, though he did move two linemen on a running play late in the game. Regardless, the Cowboys’ run game has been terrible since DeMarco Murray’s injury and has shown no signs of rebounding.

Pass Offense: First, the good news. Tony Romo threw 50 passes against the Browns. For the first time in his career he threw more than 40 passes in a game and the Cowboys won. But it was rough sledding for Romo to get those 313 passing yards. The Browns’ defensive line played extremely well, sacking Romo seven times. This was a bunch of no-name defensive linemen, so much of that has to fall to the offensive line, which played worse in pass situations than run. The Cowboys struggled in the first half partly because they were intent on going downfield against a banged-up Browns secondary and it didn’t work because Romo had no time to throw. The Cowboys went to shorter pass routes in the second half, along with a quicker offensive rhythm, and that benefited them. Wide receiver Dez Bryant had a career game, catching 12 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. The score was a 28-yard corner fade that was the best pass-and-catch of the contest for an offense that seemed out of rhythm much of the day. Romo had one turnover but the Cowboys defense helped him dodge it. The numbers made the pass offense look more effective than it actually was – ten Cleveland defensive penalties helped, including one on the drive that led to Dan Bailey’s game-tying field goal.

Run Defense: Cleveland was going to run the ball with rookie Trent Richardson and the Cowboys prevented him from becoming the third back this season to rush for 100 yards or more against them. Richardson had 98 yards and ran tough. But his long was just 9 yards, so Dallas did a good job containing him. Richardson and backup Montario Hardesty did enough to make Dallas respect the run game, which helped Cleveland in play action. One of the best plays of the game came from safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who met Richardson just before the first down marker and brought him down to force a punt. Linebacker Dan Connor met Richardson in mid-air in the fourth quarter at the goal line to prevent a touchdown. Linebacker Bruce Carter, once again, had a nice game in run support. Cleveland ran for yards, but they were tough yards and no big plays came from them.

Pass Defense: The Cowboys were playing back in the first half, sending three rushers and, for some reason, daring Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden to throw underneath. So the Browns attacked with an array of screens to Richardson and short routes to Josh Gordon and Greg Little. They worked. That’s what led to Weeden’s first touchdown pass to Ben Watson. The Browns’ protection of Weeden was excellent for most of the contest, but as the game went on Weeden’s decision-making slowed down and it led to some mistakes. The Cowboys changed tactics in the second half, rushing four or more and that seemed to impact what Cleveland could do in the passing game. Dallas started getting pressure and Anthony Spencer, for the second straight week, forced a fumble and turnover on a sack. Like the running game, though, the Browns were unable to create any dynamic plays. Dallas’ defense was happy to give up yards, but not points. The final touchdown was on Dallas. Weeden found Watson on a seam route and, when you look at the aerial replay, the back row of the defense was out of alignment due to substitutions. Safety Danny McCray was left in single coverage with Watson and he couldn’t stay with him. Sensabaugh had a good game in coverage, as did cornerback Brandon Carr. Morris Claiborne’s name wasn’t called a single time.

Special Teams: Dwayne Harris had just two punt returns, but the second one came in overtime and was pivotal to giving Dallas field position to set up Dan Bailey’s game-winning field goal. That return was for 20 yards and Dallas set up a great wall for him to run behind. Bailey made three field goals. Lance Dunbar never returned a kickoff, thanks to Browns kicker Phil Dawson. Browns punt/kick returner Josh Cribbs nearly had a fumble in the second half, but it was reversed. He returned two punts for a 20-yard average and his first return set up a touchdown.

Coaching: I give Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett grief for not throwing downfield, but in this game it was evident that the Cowboys couldn’t protect well enough to give Romo time to do so. So Garrett adjusted well, going to short and intermediate routes and shorter quarterback drops to move the ball in the second half. It worked well. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had a similarly misguided game plan in the first half, sending three to rush the passer against a solid Browns line. Once he adjusted and sent more players after Weeden, the Dallas defense played better.

Injuries: Both Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris left the game after injuries. Harris came back. Ogletree did not and his status is uncertain after he was sandwiched by two Browns defenders.

One more thing: The Cowboys’ 68 yards in the first half was their worst output in a first half in five years. It happened last against Washington in December of 2007. The common denominators – Romo and Garrett. That may just be coincidence.