It seems obvious to say that a game's only touchdown drive is the best drive of the game, but the Cowboys had longer, more sustained and drives that were traditionally better during Monday night's 21-7 win against the Panthers. Each of these long drives ended with field goals after dying inside the five-yard-line. (They may best serve to illustrate how Marion Barber's absence may have stopped last night's game from being a blowout than anything else.)
The five-play, 58-yard number that ended with Tashard Choice's touchdown run, though, changed the face of the game. After the Cowboys shot themselves in the foot on their previous drive and settled for a field goal, the defense had forced the Panthers into a quick three-and-out. Patrick Crayton busted a long punt return to put them in position to seize the game's momentum and demoralize their opponent halfway through the third quarter.
The team found its killer instinct. Tony Romo made one of his better throws of the season on first down. He found Roy Williams between two defenders in a zone, using enough touch to get the ball over the first guy and enough oomph to keep the deep man from making a play. It was exactly the kind of throw that Romo couldn't make against the Giants and exactly the kind of read-and-throw he has to make to make use of Williams going forward.
The next play, a direct snap to Choice, is a voguish call in the NFL right now, but its one that makes the most of Choice's talents. The Cowboys were down to Choice because of injuries once again on Monday night, although Choice once again proved that there are worse places to find yourself in the world. Two plays, two first downs and they kept the ball rolling with a quick turnaround to Jason Witten on first down. Nothing fancy, just getting the ball into the right person's hands and taking advantage of a Panthers defense that was back on its heels.
Second down brought a little more inventiveness with an end around to Crayton, who took the ball all the way down to the five. Crayton got great blocking downfield and it was another great call by Jason Garrett to get the ball in the hands of a talented player without taking any unnecesary risks that could lead to a turnover. That became the story of the game, offensively at least. Romo stepped back in the second half and let his teammates do a lot of the heavy lifting, something that worked out because the Cowboys have a lot of talented offensive players even after you remove the top two running backs from the lineup.
Choice's touchdown ended the drive on a nifty call that worked because the Cowboys have made a habit of putting all their eggs in the Romo basket. He dropped back to pass, faked a throw and then handed to Choice on a draw. The Panthers bit the fake, Choice scored untouched and the Cowboys were in control of a game that they did their best to give away in the first half.
The lesson of the Giants loss wasn't that the Cowboys need Romo to play better, although they do. It was that they don't need to live and die by Romo to win football games. On these five plays, they showed they got the message and tore a hole in the Panthers defense in the process.