But Tuna needs help for playoffs
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
IRVING, Tex. - All the high hopes, the enduring faith despite meager results - it all makes sense now that Julius Jones and DeMarcus Ware played the way they did against the Carolina Panthers.
The top picks from the Dallas Cowboys' last two drafts finally had breakout games Saturday, just in time to prolong the team's season.
With Jones rushing for 194 yards and his first two touchdowns since September, and Ware providing three sacks and forcing three fumbles, the Cowboys beat the Carolina Panthers, 24-20, to remain in the playoff hunt going into the final Sunday.
"You can count them out if you want to, but I won't," coach Bill Parcells said.
Dallas (9-6) will know before the season finale kicks off Sunday night against St. Louis whether a wild-card spot is on the line. A loss by Carolina or Washington would put the Cowboys in a win-and-they're-in scenario.
"It feels good to have that chance," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said.
Regardless of how things play out, getting this far is meaningful.
The victory guarantees a winning season for Dallas, its second in three years under Parcells. It shows great progress from 6-10 last season and stops a horrendous slide since the Cowboys were 7-3, a collapse that threatened to undermine their strong start.
Seeing Jones and Ware lead the way also restores confidence in those players, as well as in the people who drafted them and the coaches who continued to rely on them when they were struggling.
There are even nice story lines behind it that reinforce Parcells' point about veterans who've been through playoff chases needing to lead the youngsters.
For Jones, it was Johnson challenging him by saying, "If we're going to win this game, you're going to have to run the ball." He kept up the banter all day, too, as Jones turned the second-most carries in club history into the fourth-best rushing performance, behind only his total against Seattle last December and the best games of Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith.
And he did it behind an offensive line that had been shoddy at best in recent weeks.
"A lot of people were doubting the offensive line, doubting us as a running backs corps, so we came out and really had a chip on our shoulders, something to prove, and we did it," Jones said. "We just played our hearts out."
Jones scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter. It was his first touchdown since Sept. 25, ending a 140-carry stretch without reaching the end zone that also included three games missed because of a sprained ankle.
His 43-yard run in the third quarter showed why he came into this season eyeing 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns. Despite all the frustrations he's endured, he's 42 yards from becoming Dallas' first 1,000-yard rusher since Smith in 2001.