Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Defense the difference in Cowboys' strong run

By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - While fans of the Dallas Cowboys may be giddy beyond belief over their team's remarkable string of success during the last few weeks, the media world likely doesn't share their exuberance.

After all, what's there to write or talk about now following the suddenly- resurgent Cowboys' emphatic -- and most essential -- victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs this past Saturday? The high- profile franchise's 13-year postseason drought isn't a topic of discussion anymore, and no longer can anyone claim that the much-maligned combo of head coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo can't win a big game. And the non-stop turmoil and soap-opera storylines long associated with the self- proclaimed "America's Team" are now a thing of the past as well, thanks to a renewed offseason commitment to developing locker-room chemistry.

There's still the matter of Phillips' long-term future that's open to speculation, but even that now seems relatively clear-cut following Saturday's 34-14 dismantling of the Eagles, Dallas' second one-sided win over its longtime rivals in less than a week. Although team owner Jerry Jones has yet to officially pick up the option he holds on Phillips' contract for the 2010 campaign, the chances of the organization making an impulsive coaching change that would potentially upset the team's obvious harmony appear to be about the same as Babe Laufenberg or Quincy Carter displacing Romo under center next season.

The recent performance of a defense that Phillips personally oversees has helped further cement the easy-going sideline boss' status for next year and beyond. The unit has been a stone wall over the course of the Cowboys' current four-game winning streak, in which the club has yielded a minuscule 31 total points and posted a pair of shutouts.

Dallas was at its swarming best on that side of the ball on Saturday, forcing four Philadelphia turnovers and relentlessly harassing veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb into a second straight subpar showing. The Eagles mustered just 140 total yards in falling behind by a 27-7 score at halftime, and more than half of that amount came on a 76-yard touchdown pass from backup triggerman Michael Vick to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin on a play where Cowboys corner Mike Jenkins lost his balance and fell down in one-on-one coverage.

The Cowboys sacked McNabb four times, with All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware notching two of those takedowns, while holding Philadelphia to just 56 rushing yards and an anemic 2-for-13 conversion rate on third and fourth downs.

Such impressive numbers have been par for the course for Dallas during this four-game tear, which began with a seven-point win over then-unbeaten New Orleans on December 19 and also includes a 24-0 rout of the Eagles in the regular-season finale. The Cowboys have surrendered a mere 50.3 rushing yards during that stretch, while opponents have been successful on just 22.7 percent (10-of-44) of third-down opportunities on the defense.

"Right now there's not any weak points on our defense, and there's not any weak points on our offense," said Ware. "When you can bring all the talent together and play really well like we're playing right now, if we can play a [strong] fundamental game like we did these last two games -- actually since the New Orleans Saints game -- it's going to be really good."


The Dallas offense certainly did its part as well in the team's first playoff victory since 1996. The Cowboys piled up 426 total yards and made good on 9- of-16 third-down tries, with Romo -- who entered the contest with an 0-2 record and a mediocre 75.8 quarterback rating in the postseason -- completing a solid 23-of-35 throws for 244 yards and two touchdowns in a turnover-free display.

The star of the show, however, turned out to be second-year running back Felix Jones. The 2008 first-round pick scorched the Eagles for 148 yards on 16 carries and put to rest any comeback hopes by ripping off a dazzling 73-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the longest in the Cowboys' storied postseason history.

"You can see any time he gets out in the open field, it's a chance to make a big play," said Phillips. "He made one last week against [Philadelphia] and then this week again. He's prolific as far as making big plays."

Jones had a 49-yard scoring burst to put the finishing touches on Dallas' Week 17 win over the Eagles and added a 30-yard reception on the opening drive of Saturday's matchup. His stellar outing in the rematch was the third-highest rushing total for a Dallas player in a playoff game, eclipsed only by legends Tony Dorsett (160 yards vs. Los Angeles Rams in 1980) and Emmitt Smith (150 yards vs. Green Bay in 1995).

The Cowboys ran for a bountiful 196 yards as a team on Saturday, with Jones and usual third-stringer Tashard Choice (14 rushes, 42 yards) doing most of the damage with leading rusher Marion Barber hobbled by a bruised left knee that limited him to four yards on three attempts.


- Phillips had been 0-4 in the postseason prior to Saturday's breakthrough, having lost AFC Wild Card tests in stops at Denver and Buffalo (twice) in addition to Dallas' 21-17 defeat to the New York Giants in a 2007 NFC Divisional Playoff.

- The Cowboys scored 27 points over five consecutive drives in the second quarter, the team's highest output in a single period in postseason history.

- Rookie tight end John Phillips (no relation to the head coach) scored the first of those points by snaring a one-yard toss from Romo in the opening minute of the second quarter. The blocking specialist had just seven catches totaling 62 yards and no scores during the regular season.

- The announced crowd of 92,951 in the first playoff game at the new Cowboys Stadium was the largest in NFL annals for a postseason contest other than the Super Bowl.


Right offensive tackle Marc Colombo, out since breaking his right leg and suffering a high ankle sprain in a November 15 loss at Green Bay, returned to his customary spot in the starting lineup for Saturday's tilt. The steady eighth-year pro was able to make it through the entire game without incident, although he admitted experiencing some rust from the lengthy layoff.

Choice, who sustained a mild concussion in the regular-season finale, left Saturday's game in the fourth quarter after feeling a bit woozy from a hard hit. The Cowboys will monitor his situation closely in the days leading up to this weekend's clash with Minnesota in the Divisional Round.

Head coach Wade Phillips wasn't overly concerned about Barber's sore knee when asked following Saturday's win, and the physical back should be good to go for the Minnesota game barring any setbacks.

Reserve safety Pat Watkins was inactive for a fourth straight game due to a sprained left knee. The core special teamer was able to put in full practices on Thursday and Friday, however, and could be back this week.


With their postseason jinx now behind them, the Cowboys will now focus at attempting to reach their first NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season in this Sunday's Divisional showdown with Minnesota from the Metrodome. The task won't be an easy one, however, as the second-seeded Vikings went 8-0 at home during the regular season and won five of those games by double-digit points, including a 44-7 thrashing over the New York Giants in the Week 17 finale.

Dallas will also be vying to end a long winless streak at the Metrodome, a venue where the Cowboys haven't won in since a 23-17 overtime decision on September 17, 1995. Minnesota has defeated Dallas three straight times in its home building, including a 27-10 verdict in an NFC Wild Card encounter during the 1999 season.

These teams have faced one another in the playoffs a total of six times, with that above-mentioned meeting at the Metrodome the most recent of those bouts.