Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Cowboys curious to see if they can handle Eagles

By JAIME ARON AP Sports Writer
Updated: 11/04/2009 05:21:22 PM EST

IRVING, Texas—By all accounts, the Dallas Cowboys are a vastly different team than the version that left Philadelphia in shame last December.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has turned Tony Romo into a smarter, more patient quarterback who throws to anyone who is open without playing favorites. Quite often, that's become a guy named Miles Austin.

Wade Phillips has added defensive coordinator to his title, plugged a hole at strong safety and gotten a huge boost from Keith Brooking at inside linebacker. DeMarcus Ware has snapped out of an early slump to again become a ferocious quarterback stalker, despite a stress fracture in his left foot, and the cornerbacks are playing better, too.

The arrival of Joe DeCamillis as special-teams drill sergeant has paid the biggest dividends. Patrick Crayton has returned punts for touchdowns the last two weeks and rookie kickoff specialist David Buehler has a league-best 17 touchbacks—17 more than Dallas had last season.

Still, when the Cowboys return to Philadelphia on Sunday night, the main story line won't be whether they are simply good enough to match up with the Eagles. The scrutiny will be about whether they are tough enough to handle everything that is on the line: a showdown for first place in the NFC East, plus the bonus of seeking revenge against the team that so demonstratively kept them from making the playoffs last season.

Even Dallas players are eager to find out if they're up toit.
"I'm curious, a lot of guys are curious, to really know where we are," defensive co-captain Bradie James said Wednesday. "This is a chance for us to get over the hump, I would say, because it's a division game. We've got some stuff on the line—again—and I want to see how we will respond. ... It'll speak volumes for a lot of different things."

Bill Parcells used to say that coaching the Cowboys is like playing the big room in Las Vegas. Along those lines, then, this game is showtime, a performance on prime-time television with everyone across the league and the country watching. Remember, beyond the dramatic elements, this a battle between 5-2 teams.

"You don't know what's going to happen, you don't know who is going to show up," Dallas receiver Roy Williams said. "You don't know if the Eagles are going to show up, if the Cowboys are going to show up or what's going to happen. We didn't show up the last time we were out there, but ... ."

Mental toughness has been a question about the Cowboys for years; after all, they haven't won a playoff game since 1996. In just the last two seasons, Dallas has gone 13-3 in the regular season only to lose its first playoff game, then went 1-3 last December to miss the playoffs.

Because of the team's recent late-season flops, players know they're going to be reminded about it plenty come December. That's why winning a game like this could go a long way toward showing things might be different this time around.

And, of course, losing would indicate the same old, same old.

"I think everybody realizes what's at stake in this game, how crucial this one really is," Crayton said. "I'm not going to call it a 'must win' because it's not going to break the season. But I think it's a 'have-to-win.'"

Phillips hasn't brought up last year's finale. Then again, why should he? Everyone remembers.

"We want this year's team to be motivated by how we're playing and what we're doing, with a different team," Phillips said.

Still, it's important to realize those differences stemmed from the 44-6 debacle.

Team owner Jerry Jones re-evaluated his entire organization after that game. He dumped Terrell Owens and several other malcontents, fired defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and special teams coach Bruce Read, and made the offense more "Romo-friendly."

The revamped unit is averaging 411.1 yards per game, second-best in the NFL, and Romo has gone three straight games without an interception for the first time in his career. Dallas has won all three, too.

The Cowboys have been helped by a soft schedule. Only one of their victories was against a team with a winning record, and that team, Atlanta, is only 4-3.

Philadelphia has won four of five. The exception was failing to score a touchdown in a loss against Oakland. However, last Sunday, the Eagles jumped all over the New York Giants on the way to a 40-17 victory. When the Cowboys played the Giants, they blew a lead in the final minute in the opener of their $1.2 billion new stadium and lost.

Something else to consider: Dallas and Philadelphia have split the season series the last two years, with the Cowboys winning both early season games and the Eagles taking both rematches.

"If we win, it'll be, 'All hail to the Cowboys,'" Williams said. "If we lose, we can't beat the top-notch teams, yada, yada, yada. So we just want to go out there and play our game and hopefully it's a W."