Raiders quarterback Derek Carr lunged for the pylon with 31 seconds remaining for what likely would have been the game-winning touchdown, but he lost control and fumbled through the end zone for a touchback—clinching the win for the visitors.
Dallas was only ahead because Dak Prescott converted a 4th-and-1 on his own 39-yard line with a quarterback sneak so close to the final link of the chain that referee Gene Steratore had to use a piece of paper to make his ruling:
Dan Bailey hit the game-winning field goal seven plays later, and the Cowboys are now tied with the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks at 8-6 and just behind the 8-5 Atlanta Falcons—who play Monday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—for the final wild-card spot.
Reporter Ed Werder cited two officiating sources who said, "Referee Gene Steratore's use of the card officials keep in pocket to make notes to determine first-down measurement was just a smart ad-lib and not part of protocol."
Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk noted Dallas has a history with Steratore:
That Prescott was even on the field for the memorable fourth down was part of a pattern of risk-taking for Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.
He also called for a fake punt on a 4th-and-11 from Dallas' 24-yard line in the third quarter after Oakland quickly erased a 10-0 halftime deficit in two offensive possessions, and punter Chris Jones converted it with a 24-yard run. That set up a Prescott touchdown run to give the Cowboys the lead and momentum instead of giving Oakland the ball back in favorable field position.
Dallas still needs help to reach the postseason, but Sunday's outcome and the risks its coach was willing to take sent a statement to the rest of the NFC that it isn't going away just yet.
What's more, star running back Ezekiel Elliott is set to rejoin the team and provide a boost for the final two contests after serving his six-game suspension.
With Elliott still sidelined Sunday, Prescott found himself shouldering much of the offensive load and throwing against an Oakland defense that wasn't preoccupied with slowing last season's rushing champion. He struggled to establish a rhythm as a result and threw for 212 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions to Sean Smith, but he directed two critical scoring drives late in the game.
He also played without left tackle Tyron Smith in the fourth quarter after he suffered a knee injury, per Rob Phillips of Talkin' Cowboys.
On the other side, the Raiders will be ruing their missed opportunities even beyond the Carr fumble.
Jared Cook's touchdown catch right before halftime was wiped off the board for offensive pass interference, and Cordarrelle Patterson's kickoff return to start the second half was called back for a penalty as well. Giorgio Tavecchio also missed a field goal two plays after Cook's touchdown didn't stand.
Oakland does deserve credit for consistently battling back after Rod Smith's touchdown run put it behind 10-0.
Carr responded to the penalty nullifying Patterson's touchdown by leading an 11-play, 90-yard drive that ended with a history-making touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree:
Crabtree also caught a touchdown on the ensuing drive after Dallas' fake punt and drew a pass interference on Jourdan Lewis on fourth down to keep hope alive three plays before Carr's fateful fumble.
Carr finished with 171 passing yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, but the fumble will surely haunt him with the Raiders sitting at 6-8 and two games out of the playoff picture with two games remaining.
Things won't get much easier with a road game against the 12-2 Philadelphia Eagles up next, while Dallas will turn its attention to a showdown with the Seahawks.