Spirits were high for the Washington Redskins when they went into halftime on Thursday with a commanding 28-3 lead over their rival Dallas Cowboys.
But Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan knew the Cowboys were going to try to use every bit of the remaining 30 minutes left in the game to salvage what was amounting to an embarrassing performance in front of their home fans on a Thanksgiving Day, nationally-televised game.
Sure enough, Dallas—led by Tony Romo—mounted a ferocious second-half rally, outscoring Washington 28-10 and twice getting within a touchdown and an extra point from tying the game.
But the Redskins made the plays they needed down the stretch and left Cowboys Stadium with a 38-31 win.
"They got a little momentum going," Shanahan said. "They're a good football team. In the National Football League, you've got to play for a full 60 minutes; you've got to be able to close out games.
"I thought our guys were able to do that."
The Redskins (5-6) stole the momentum the first half by making several big plays on offense and by forcing two timely Cowboys (5-6) turnovers on defense.
But Washington found those opportunities were few and far between in the second half, as Dallas made adjustments to defend the Redskins' East Coast Offense and exploded on offense with Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant.
After completing just 13 of 21 passes for 97 yards and an interception in the first half, Romo passed for three touchdowns and 344 yards on 24-of-41 passing alone in the second half. Bryant, meanwhile, had eight catches for 145 yards and two of those touchdowns.
Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said the defensive game plan against the Cowboys coming in was to stop the run game and keep Romo in the pocket.
Washington ended up having no problems against the Dallas running backs, but Romo found success by going to the no huddle offense in the second half and by finding his receivers on the run.
"I think because we developed such a big lead, they were ultimately throwing the ball throughout most of the game," Kerrigan said. "Obviously, Romo had a lot of yards today because they were in the two-minute drill throughout most of the game, but we feel like if we can make a team one-dimensional, then it gives us a lot better chance to win."
Kerrigan's key fourth-quarter sack of Romo on the Cowboys' final drive of the game ended any threat of a comeback, forcing a field goal instead of a touchdown.
With 2:18 remaining in the game and the Redskins leading 38-28, the Cowboys faced a 3rd-and-4 from their own 27-yard line when Romo found running back Lance Dunbar on a wheel route, who got 14 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by Redskins safety Madieu Williams.
On the next play, Romo dropped back, but with no receivers open he tried to extend the play on his own, as he had been doing the entire second half. This time, however, Kerrigan was right there to make a play, and dropped Romo for an 11-yard loss.
"It felt good to get that one," said Kerrigan, who has a team-leading 6.5 sacks on the season. "It was really good coverage in the secondary and fortunately that forced Romo to hold onto the ball."
Two minutes later, the Redskins had officially held off the Cowboys rally to escape with the victory.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy, and we wanted it to be on our shoulders on defense," Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said. "Romo is Romo, and he's going to make plays. He's one of the elite quarterbacks in the league.
"For the most part, we got it done when it counted."