IRVING, Texas -- Regardless of whether Ron Dayne ever outruns his reputation as an underachiever, he'll always be able to look back fondly at Thanksgiving 2005.
Filling in for injured Tatum Bell, Dayne rumbled 55 yards on the second play of overtime and Jason Elam followed with a 24-yard field goal to give the Denver Broncos a 24-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday in the kind of tight, tense game expected in a clash between first-place teams.
Bell was a surprise scratch because of a bruised chest, and Dayne didn't even know he'd be in the lineup until Thursday. He responded with 98 yards rushing, his most since Sept. 30, 2001, and scored his first touchdown since the 2004 opener, when the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner was still with the New York Giants.
"The coaching staff gave me a chance and they believed in me," Dayne said. "I was glad I got this opportunity to show Coach that I wasn't a bust."
The game was close for more than four quarters, with the margin never wider than a touchdown. Both defenses came up with big plays and each team downed a punt inside the 2. There was a close call by the officials, and the Cowboys (7-4) missed a 34-yard field goal that would've put them ahead midway through the fourth quarter.
Denver (9-2) never trailed in winning its fourth straight, but the Broncos were hardly in control. Their running game struggled until Dayne's big burst and Jake Plummer threw his first interception since Week 2. Still, they improved to 3-2 on the road to maintain hopes of catching unbeaten Indianapolis for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
"I guess we're living right," said cornerback Champ Bailey, who returned an interception 65 yards for Denver's first touchdown. "Everything worked out tonight. ... We have something special here."
Dallas ended a three-game winning streak and, like all its other losses, this one was decided late. The Cowboys' losses are by a combined 13 points, with the last two coming on game-ending field goals. This one gives the Giants a chance to take over first place in the NFC East on Sunday, before facing Dallas the following weekend.
"I'm disappointed with the outcome, I'm not disappointed with the effort," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "I thought we played pretty solid on defense, until that last run."
Dayne joined the Broncos this offseason for the minimum salary in hopes of reviving his career in an offense that consistently features one of the NFL's best rushing attacks. He was active only five of the first 10 games, and he came into this game without a carry since Oct. 2 and a season total of 53 yards.
"I never lost confidence in my ability," he said. "I knew I could play if I found the right situation and the right opportunity."
He began showing it with a season-best run of 14 yards on his first carry. Then came a 16-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Dayne and Mike Anderson were alternating series, and it was Dayne's turn when the Broncos won the overtime coin toss. After opening with a pass, Plummer handed off to Dayne on second-and-3 from the 39.
He bowled through the left side of the line, pulled away from would-be tackler Keith Davis around the 50 and kept going until he was dragged down from behind by Terence Newman at the 6. The speedy Newman actually got to Dayne at the 10 but, carrying 245 pounds and a full head of steam, Dayne took a while to go down.
Denver called timeout, then went straight to Elam. The kick was perfect and the Broncos let out a huge sigh of relief.
"Being able to help the team win is all I can ask for," Dayne said. "I haven't been upset about not playing. I just wanted to show the stuff I have. It was a lot of fun."
The Cowboys limited Denver to 89 yards rushing in regulation, about half its average. The Broncos weren't much better throwing the ball, with a long of only 24 yards. Before Dayne's big play, they'd converted only one first down since going ahead 21-14.
Plummer was 15-of-24 for 162 yards, with a touchdown pass to Rod Smith. Plummer's franchise-record streak of passes without an interception ended at 229 when Newman picked him off in the second quarter.
Drew Bledsoe was 29-of-44 for 232 yards for Dallas, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Dallas' last two scores came off Denver turnovers, including a close one by Anderson at the start of the fourth quarter. Officials ruled that Newman scooped it up at the 10 before rolling out of bounds, but it was hard to tell. The Broncos couldn't challenge because they'd used them up questioning spots of the ball in the first half.
- Bell, who grew up in a Dallas suburb, was listed as questionable all week and had said he wanted to play. His average of 6.0 yards per carry is the best in the NFL.
- Witten tied his career high with nine catches and had 82 yards.
- Bailey's interception was his sixth of the year, tying for the league lead. It was the second he's returned for a touchdown. The INTs and TDs are career bests.