ARLINGTON, Texas - How about this for some credibility - the Dallas Cowboys finally beat a team with a winning record and emerging star Miles Austin proved that a record-setting performance in his first career start was no fluke.
Owner Jerry Jones knew his team needed to beat somebody like the Atlanta Falcons, some sense of validation for the Cowboys after getting their first three wins over teams with a combined 3-17 record and going down to the wire in losses against two division leaders.
"I really think this is something that our team will take as a stepping stone to being the team we all want to be a part of," Jones said Sunday after a 37-21 victory over the Falcons (4-2).
"The reality of it is, we believe in ourselves," quarterback Tony Romo said. "We think this team has a chance to get better and grow as the season goes along."
Still, it had been two weeks since the Cowboys (4-2) needed overtime to win at then-winless Kansas City in their last game. That was a lot of time for people to wonder if they were a good team for rallying to win or a bad one for even getting in that situation.
Plus, Dallas had alternated wins and losses - the wins over bad teams sandwiching losses to the NFC East-leading Giants and still-undefeated Denver Broncos, who both rallied late to beat the Cowboys.
"It's a huge win for us, just to put to rest a lot of the questions about our team," said linebacker Keith Brooking, a former Falcon. "This was a total team effort, really a dominating performance. Atlanta, they pride themselves on being physical. ... We took it to them. We bloodied their noses and then we stepped on them and kicked them on the ground."
Austin, an undrafted player from tiny Monmouth College in his fourth season, filled in for injured receiver Roy Williams against the Chiefs with 10 catches for a franchise-record 250 yards and two long TDs, a 59-yarder with 2:16 left in regulation and then the 60-yard game-winner in OT.
Even with Williams back, Austin was the only wideout on the field when the Cowboys opened against Atlanta with two tight ends. Austin went on to catch six passes for 171 yards and two more long TDs.
"Once you do it, then it's OK and you believe him to do whatever," said Romo, once the young backup who came out of nowhere to start making big plays.
"I feel confident," Austin said. "I've always felt pretty confident."
Atlanta drove 80 yards in 16 plays on its opening drive, but Matt Ryan's day wouldn't be that easy.
"After that, the Cowboys dominated the rest of the game," coach Mike Smith said.
Ryan had been sacked only twice so far, both in the season opener. But the Dallas defense got to him on consecutive downs later in the first quarter and pestered him into four sacks, two interceptions and two fumbles. He only lost one, and on the next snap Romo hit Austin with a 59-yard TD pass that put the Cowboys ahead to stay.
"It's frustrating because we feel we can play better," said Ryan, who finished 19 of 35 for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
The Falcons missed a chance to match their best start in franchise history (they were 5-1 in their 1998 Super Bowl season). They trail undefeated New Orleans in the NFC South and will have to bounce back quickly with the two teams set to meet in the Superdome next Monday night.
Romo was 21 of 29 for 311 yards with three TDs, his 19th career 300-yard game and only the second time he's gone consecutive games without an interception. The other was in 2006, in his third and fourth starts after replacing Drew Bledsoe midway through the season.
Patrick Crayton, who since the last game had lost his jobs as a starting receiver and punt returner, had a 73-yard return for a touchdown and caught a 5-yard pass for a score just before halftime when Romo escaped three defenders before putting the Cowboys up 17-7.
"(Crayton) is the kind of guy you want on your football team," coach Wade Phillips said. "He's going to make plays when he has opportunities."
But the only reason Crayton was returning punts again was because newly signed Allen Rossum, the Dallas native cut by San Francisco, hurt his hamstring returning the kick after Atlanta scored its first touchdown.
Ryan had gone 142 passes without a sack. Two of the sacks and the lost fumble were caused by DeMarcus Ware, the NFL's reigning sack king, who was stuck at zero through four games.
"We had to make No. 2 (Ryan) beat us, and we kind of got him flustered," Bradie James said. "This was the biggest one. We beat a winning team, so all the naysayers can say whatever. But we beat a winning team, so now we're rolling. ... We're rolling with some confidence."