Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cowboys prepare to go bird hunting

Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons (Dallas leads series 15-8)

LAST MEETING: Cowboys 38, Falcons 28

By TODD ARCHER / The Dallas Morning News

ATLANTA – The Cowboys came to Atlanta on a short week with something to prove after their embarrassing loss to New Orleans. Doubt crept in.

Was Tony Romo coming back to earth?

Was the defense as porous as it seemed against the Saints?

Would December again doom the Cowboys' playoff chances?

The Cowboys left Atlanta on Saturday night by answering some of those questions positively, while other questions lingered, especially defensively.

But more important, the Cowboys left with a track-meet type of victory, 38-28, at the Georgia Dome against the Falcons and moved a step closer toward clinching a playoff spot for the second time in Bill Parcells' four seasons.

Coming off his first subpar outing last week against New Orleans, Romo responded with 278 yards on 22-of-29 passing with two touchdown passes to Terrell Owens. The defense, battered for most of the second and third quarters, came up with big stops when it mattered most late in the third and into the fourth.

"If we lost this game, the team's confidence could have gone down a little bit," Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said. "Bill's been talking to us the last few weeks about controlling our destiny and how important it is. We're still in control."

At 9-5, the Cowboys will remain at least one game ahead in the NFC East with two games to play, regardless of what happens today, with Philadelphia (7-6) visiting Texas Stadium on Christmas Day.

The Cowboys can even clinch a playoff spot today with losses or ties by Minnesota and Carolina or a loss or tie by Minnesota and a win or tie by New Orleans.

A win on Christmas Day against the Eagles, and the Cowboys could potentially clinch their first NFC East title since 1998. At the very least Saturday, they earned a tiebreaking edge on Atlanta with the win.

"This was as big a game as we've had this year," Romo said. "I think we are trailing everybody when it comes to tiebreakers. We knew the importance of this one coming in. At the same point, you can't let that make you play scared. You have to play loose and let it go. ... The championship teams, the teams that really have a chance come January, bounce right back and win."

The Cowboys showed resiliency in Saturday's game – the same resiliency they had shown all season. They have not lost back-to-back games all season, and they have followed up their five losses with wins by double-digit margins.

But a 14-0 lead turned into a 28-21 deficit in the third quarter after the defense allowed touchdowns on four straight drives.

A week after allowing New Orleans' Drew Brees throw for five touchdown passes, the defense saw Michael Vick throw four. Vick also set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 990 yards.

Defensively in the second and third quarters, the Cowboys looked as lost as they did against New Orleans. Roddy White caught passes of 52 and 43 yards to set up scores in the second quarter by beating Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn.

And even when things went good momentarily, such as a fumble recovery by Akin Ayodele, they went bad when Ayodele fumbled the ball right back. That drive ended with 11 seconds left in the first half when Vick connected with Ashley Lelie on an 8-yard touchdown pass.

But a funny thing happened after a 48-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica made it 28-24 with 7:17 left in the third quarter: The sieve-like defense actually got a stop for the first time since DeMarcus Ware's interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

Romo then directed a seven-play drive that ended with Marion Barber pinballing his way into the end zone for a 31-28 lead.

Another funny thing happened on the Falcons' next drive: The Cowboys defense put together back-to-back stops for the first time since the first quarter when Henry batted away a pass for Lelie on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 37.

"When it was time to make plays and win the game, we were stepping up to the plate," linebacker Bradie James said.

Romo answered again, completing five straight passes for 45 yards, and Barber closed the deal with 35 yards on the ground, including the final three for the game-clinching, doubt-ending touchdown with 2:23 to play.

"I'm really proud of them," Parcells said. "We're in the race now and we'll be in it till the last day."

Cowboys vs. Seattle Seahawks (Dallas leads series 7-5)

LAST MEETING: Cowboys 34, Seahawks 9

By TODD ARCHER / The Dallas Morning News

IRVING – The Cowboys closed their Thanksgiving tradition at Texas Stadium on Thursday with a 34-9 win against Seattle.

That was the easy part.

Now it gets interesting.

At 8-4 after winning three straight games, the Cowboys have put themselves in position for a December run toward a possible NFC playoff spot for the third straight year.

"You can see how the climate can change pretty quickly in this league," coach Wade Phillips said. "You've got to do what you need to do, and what you need to do is win and get on a winning streak. And we've started that."

They have with an offense that is reclaiming its early-season dominance, in time for a final four-game stretch against Pittsburgh, the New York Giants, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"I think everyone knows the importance of these games and knows that we need to win in order to get to the playoffs," wide receiver Terrell Owens said. "And I think once we get to the playoffs it's any man's game up until that point. But we can't look to the playoffs already."

Tony Romo (331 passing yards, three touchdown passes), Jason Witten (nine catches, 115 yards, one touchdown) and Owens (five catches, 98 yards, one touchdown) made sure two-win Seattle would not pull off a holiday surprise.

"If you can put your foot on someone's throat, that's what championship teams do," Romo said. "We've tried to stress that for a long time, and this team is doing a good job of when an opportunity comes, take it."

Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Dallas leads series 55-44)

LAST MEETING: Eagles 44, Cowboys 6

By TODD ARCHER / The Dallas Morning News

PHILADELPHIA – By the summer, maybe, the outlook will change. The Cowboys will sign players and draft them, and expectations will rise once again, probably to Super Bowl levels.

They will move into a $1.1 billion stadium next year in Arlington that will bring even more enthusiasm.

But on Sunday, this Super Bowl-or-bust season ended in colossal failure as the Cowboys missed the playoffs with a 44-6 loss to Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field.

The 38-point loss was not only the franchise's worst in 20 years, it was a stinging slap to the face that served as a reminder of everything the Cowboys weren't in 2008.

"I am about every way you can to explain about feeling embarrassed," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "We did not play to what my expectations were this season."

In the locker room after the game, Jones continued his strong support of coach Wade Phillips, saying, "This is obviously very disappointing right now, but we won't have a head coaching change."

But change is part of the NFL.

"There's not much you can say after a game like this," Phillips said. "The season's obviously over. We will meet [Monday], but it's an utter disappointment. That's all you can think about right now."