Watch out, Vikes: Cowboys finally hitting stride at the perfect time
Tony Romo may have quieted his critics for good after Saturday's big game
It's possible that Donovan McNabb may have played his last game with Philly
Felix Jones has quickly evolved from a change-of-pace back to rock-steady runner
Here's what we learned from the Cowboys' 34-14 victory over the Eagles on Saturday in Arlington.
1. Tony Romo has grown up. No player had more to lose Saturday than the Cowboys quarterback, and he responded with a calm, masterful performance in his first playoff victory. With the Eagles sending waves of blitzes, Romo picked apart the Philadelphia secondary, taking advantage of mismatches wherever he found them.
On Saturday, the Eagles' weak link was Sheldon Brown, and Romo went after him, whether he was throwing to Miles Austin or the newly discovered Roy Williams. His numbers: 23 for 35 for 244 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and 104.9 rating. Under Romo's guidance, the Cowboys have defeated New Orleans, Washington and Philly twice over the last four weeks. Romo is playing as well as any quarterback in the league, and Saturday's victory should free him up even more against the Vikings. Remember those highlights of Romo fumbling that field-goal snap in the playoffs against Seattle? Those are headed for the trash bin.
2. From the moment DeMarcus Ware returned from a neck injury to notch two sacks and two forced fumbles against New Orleans, the Dallas defense has been inspired. It is not a coincidence the Cowboys have spent the last month playing lockdown defense, throttling the Saints, blanking the Redskins and Eagles in back-to-back weeks (the first time the Cowboys had shutout consecutive opponents in history) and beating up Philly in the wild card. Seeing their best defensive player laid out on a stretcher, flashing a thumbs-up sign to the crowd and returning a week later to lead the defense has given Dallas a purpose and a rallying cry. In recent years, the Cowboys could always pick up sacks here and there, but they seemed to give up just as many big plays. With Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins providing solid play at the corner, Bradie James and Keith Brooking providing smart, savvy play at linebacker, and Jay Ratliff plugging up holes at nose tackle, the Cowboys defense is playing at its highest level at the most important time of the year. That Ware is the face of the defense -- and its heart and soul -- is evident on every down. Late in the fourth quarter against the Eagles, Ware sacked Donovan McNabb and forced another fumble. The Cowboys' sideline exploded, greeting him with high-fives and hugs.
3. Donovan McNabb will face a fusillade of questions in Philadelphia following his second straight awful game against the Cowboys in as many weeks. As great as he is, McNabb's lows can be deep canyons, and Saturday's effort was among his worst. He completed just 19-of-37 passes for 230 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a 68.5 rating. McNabb has one year left on his contract after having his deal restructured before the 2009 season, and Philadelphians will be asking out loud whether the team should part ways with the 33-year-old quarterback. The problem is, who's better than McNabb that Andy Reid can turn to? Is Kevin Kolb the answer? Is Michael Vick really a better quarterback than McNabb following Vick's two years of inactivity? Franchise quarterbacks don't grow on trees, so no matter how weary Eagles fans might be of McNabb, there aren't a lot of great options floating around. Still, you have to wonder if Reid might pick up the phone and see if there are any parties around the league that might be interested in a trade.
4. Wade Phillips taking over as the Cowboys defensive coordinator this season saved his job. Several weeks after the Cowboys fell 44-6 to the Eagles to close out the 2008 season, Jerry Jones and Phillips had a conversation. Both men felt the head coach wasn't giving himself all the tools he needed to win. "We both agreed that Wade was an outstanding defensive coordinator," Jones recalled. "He said he thought he ought to give the head coach a chance to have an outstanding defensive coordinator." With that, Phillips assumed the Cowboys' coordinator duties, and it began a season of tremendous growth for a unit that was always good but never truly great. All along, Phillips has said the story of the Cowboys defense was not about him, but in reality ... it was. In winning his first playoff game, Phillips all but ensured his return as Cowboys coach in 2010.
5. Felix Jones has developed into an all-purpose back. After a rookie season marred by hamstring and toe injuries, Jones has given the Cowboys great versatility in the running game. No longer just a speedster, Jones is proving to be a durable inside runner, as well -- flying through the middle of line and then bouncing to the outside for big gains. One of my favorite memories from a year ago was the sight of Stephen Jones (the Cowboys' director of player personnel and Jerry's son) standing in a hallway in Lambeau Field, calling his family at halftime of the Cowboys-Packers game, and asking them if they were as impressed with Felix Jones as he was. Back then, Felix was more of a one-dimensional back, a north-south runner. In his second year, he has shown more strength and shiftiness coming out of the backfield, without sacrificing any of his blazing speed. In his 73-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, lifting Dallas to a 34-7 lead, all of Jones' skills were on display. (He finished with 148 yards rushing on 16 carries). He will be a handful for the Vikings defense to stop.
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