The defining play came a good half hour in real time and more than 10 minutes of clock time before Tim Seder's 27-yard kick provided Dallas its 16-13 overtime victory at Ericsson Stadium on Sunday. But it was the Panthers' last real chance to send the Cowboys into bye-week exile with a 1-4 record and crush whatever gains Dallas had made since the 41-24 embarrassment against the 49ers.
Situation: It is fourth and just a few inches at the Dallas 30. Tshimanga Biakabutuka is averaging 4.3 yards per carry against the defense that ranked dead last against the run in September. The score is tied, less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Maybe the call was just too, too obvious.
Steve Beuerlein audibled out of a quarterback sneak. Woodson's eyes lit up when he heard the call of the former Cowboys quarterback.
"He called my number," said Woodson. "He looked at me and called 28-something. I have to give the coaches credit because I knew what they were going to run when I saw the set."
Beuerlein threw a quick out for Isaac Byrd, a third wide receiver who had not caught a pass all afternoon. The ball never reached him as Woodson knocked it to the ground and saved the day.
"It was a huge play in the game, one we will all be scratching our heads about for a long time," said Beuerlein. "Darren Woodson made a great play. He played it well enough to make me think he might have been looking for that play."
Even though the Cowboys failed to score on the long drive that followed, that was really the end for Carolina. On the Panthers' final possession with just 1:02 left in regulation, Carolina had to punt. This time Beuerlein's third-down pass for Biakabutuka was broken up by Woodson.
And so ... relief.
When this one was officially over, when Woodson arrived at his locker after a long shower, the feeling was more relief than elation. The Cowboys are 2-3. Yes, they are a game out of first place in the NFC East, but they remain a puzzle to all.
"I just told the team I don't know what we're about yet," said head coach Dave Campo. "But we will fight."
Embattled defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer redirected the line to be more patient and disciplined. "It was a rough week for me, a rough week for the entire defense," he said. "I have no idea what this will do for us down the road.
"Last week's fiasco really set us back. Everybody's confidence was shaken."
They didn't solve all their problems Sunday, but the defense joined Emmitt Smith in the winner's circle by recovering two big fumbles in Dallas territory and by eliminating big plays. Muhsin Muhammad's 27-yard gain on a short crossing route against a blitz was the only Carolina play that gained 20 yards.
"We needed this win," said Woodson, who along with George Teague encouraged the secondary to do extra film study this week. "I don't know if it puts us back in position to do anything or not.
"We know that we have to practice hard and study hard if we're going to succeed now."
For Woodson, the embarrassment of tossing his helmet and being ejected against San Francisco fades in the memory banks. The five-time Pro Bowl safety is a leader again.
Where he and the other veteran leaders can take this club is anyone's guess.
"I think the reason I got kicked out last week was I was just so mad because this team has potential and we weren't playing up to it," Woodson said. "That was frustrating. People were blaming the coaches, and our problems had nothing to do with the coaches.
"We don't have the talent that we had in '92 and '93. Our team is going to be up and down."
Still more down than up in 2000, the Cowboys caught a break Sunday when Carolina made a bad fourth-down call. It played into the Cowboys' hands, specifically the strong sure set that belongs to Darren Woodson.
Fitting that the man who convinced the defensive players to start holding hands in the huddle this week would have the biggest hand in setting the stage for victory.
Tim Cowlishaw can be reached at 214-977-8446 or tcowlishaw @dallasnews.com.