Friday, January 08, 2010

Driven by Cowboys’ legacy

By Ralph Vacchiano

For 13 years the Dallas Cowboys have been searching for a play-off victory.

They have been classic December and January chokers for all of Tony Romo’s seven-year career.

So why is Romo, the Cowboys often-beleaguered quarterback, suddenly smiling? “Because this is when it’s fun,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of anything that has the win-and-move-on situations. You don’t belong in the game if you don’t love this situation.”

It was not always that way, of course, but Romo has had nothing but fun in the latter part of this season, which is why he seems so happy and confident heading into the Cowboys’ first-round play-off game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Last weekend, the Cowboys (11-5) beat the Eagles (11-5) 24-0 to win the NFC East and claim home-field advantage in the rematch.

And in December, where the Cowboys have melted like snowmen in summer over the past few years, they won three of their five games this season, including a stunning, 24-17 win over the previously unbeaten Saints in New Orleans.

What has sparked the change in late-season fortunes?

The obvious answer is Romo, who was able to dismiss the knock that he is turnover prone by throwing a career-low nine interceptions despite a franchise record 550 pass attempts.

He was at his best in December, too, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had eight 300-yard games, while setting a team record with 4,483 passing yards.

As nice as all that is, though, the 29-year-old QB knows it will not matter if he loses the third play-off game of his career. The Cowboys are supposed to be “America’s Team” and have historically been one of the NFL’s most successful and storied franchises.

No play-off victories since the mid-90s has been an embarrassment, and another year of failure will not do.

“A lot of it is the team you’re playing against [in the play-offs], a lot of it is the team you have, and a lot of it is improvement you’ve had over the course of a few years,” Romo said of previous failures.

“I’d like to think I’m better than I was in the last two, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.”

It is also not a guarantee that the Cowboys will be able to beat the Eagles for the third time this season, something that has been notoriously hard to achieve in the NFL.

But the Eagles had won six consecutive games before losing to the Cowboys last Sunday and seemed to be heading into the play-offs as one of the hottest teams in the league.

The Cowboys, though, looked and played much hotter.

“We saw some things in their defence we thought we could attack. We were unable to do it,” said Eagles full-back Leonard Weaver. “Those guys came out fired up and tremendously intensified. You can’t make any mistakes. You have to be on top of your game. We didn’t do that.”

So now the Cowboys have the look and feel of a team to beat, which they have not really had since their last Super Bowl championship, way back in early 1996.

They won a wild-card game the following season in late December 1996, and have been searching for their next play-off success ever since. This, though, is finally their year – at least that is what they believe down in Dallas.

“I think we’re going to win,” said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips.

“I think we’re going to win this football game.

“This is a tough league, but I don’t know that anybody’s going into the play-offs stronger than we are,” he added.