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THE FATHER and son walked into the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field just before midnight, slapping backs and cracking wise. This is the weekly postgame ritual for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his oldest child, Stephen, two Arkansas alums charged with keeping Dallas the envy of the NFL. From recruiting free agents to building a $1 billion stadium, the Joneses—Jerry, 65, is the general manager, Stephen, 44, the director of player personnel—enjoy mixing the business of football with the pleasures of fandom, and they prefer heaping portions of both.
Sometimes they can't even wait until the end. After the Cowboys took a 13--6 halftime lead over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Stephen walked out of his suite, a cellphone glued to his ear. "Did you watch Felix [Jones] run?" he asked, reliving his rookie back's 60-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. "O.K., put Mom on."
And when the Cowboys had punched out Green Bay 27--16, it was Jerry's turn to poke out his chest in the boisterous Dallas locker room. "I'll give anybody a loan who bet against the Cowboys," he said.
Jerry's bravado on Sunday night stood in sharp contrast to his demeanor last January, when the wild-card New York Giants humbled his Cowboys at home 21--17 in the NFC divisional playoffs. Even after Dallas broke training camp this summer, Jones says he didn't know what kind of team he had. He got some clues in the light fog at Lambeau—from his punishing defense and disciplined special teams, from his game-breaking pass-catchers and running backs, and from a quarterback raised a couple of hours south of Green Bay, in Burlington, Wis.
"That's not the same Tony Romo that came to the NFL trying to make all the plays out there when they weren't there," Jerry said. "That's not him anymore. Now he gives us every chance to win."
Romo and the Cowboys are trying to succeed where the New York Yankees failed: by closing out the final season in their venerable stadium with a world championship. But before they plan a trip to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII, they must navigate a newly ascendant conference marked by high-scoring offenses and stingy, suffocating defenses. For most of the decade the AFC has been home to the league's elite teams. But this season, with the Patriots, Colts and Chargers barely recognizable—and such sexy 2008 picks as the Browns and the Jaguars below .500—the power has shifted to the NFC. That means four more months of tough going. "We sort of beat up on each other so much that it makes it hard to get a clear-cut team out of the NFC," says Dallas safety Ken Hamlin. Adds Romo, "When you're in this conference, you're just trying to get out of it alive."
If Sunday's tilt between Dallas and Green Bay was not necessarily a preview of the NFC Championship Game, it did match 2--0 teams that narrowly missed out on a shot at a Super Bowl championship last season, each at the hands of the Giants. Packers wideout Donald Driver still grumbles about the Packers' failure to close the deal at home in the NFC title game. "You know the saying about having a house full of people, and if you don't get in there and eat, the food will be gone?" Driver says. "Well, we left some food on that table last year. We have to make sure that the next time, we clean the table, wash the dishes and put everything away."
The hype and hyperbole were thick before kickoff, not least because Brett Favre's shadow loomed over the game. Romo spent much of the week explaining how he is the rare Wisconsin native who has never owned a Packers number 4 jersey. He attended just one Green Bay game as a teenager, and that in the preseason. Yes, Romo liked Favre's Packers growing up, but he dug John Elway's Broncos and Joe Montana's 49ers too. "And I was always a Chicago Bulls fan," he says. "Michael Jordan."
When asked about making his first start in his home state, Romo noted that Sunday was actually his second game at Lambeau. "We played there in 2004," he said. "I was the holder." Romo left a more lasting impression this time, bouncing back from a first-quarter interception to finish with 17 completions in 30 attempts for 260 yards, including a picture-perfect 52-yard touchdown to emerging speedster Miles Austin midway through the fourth quarter to ice the game. When Romo wasn't finding receivers—he hit seven different targets—the offensive line was punching holes for the fearless Marion Barber, the fourth-year back who has emerged as one of the game's best, and the flashy Felix Jones, the 22nd pick, from Jerry and Stephen's alma mater.
"When you have a good line and a good quarterback, it makes everyone better," says Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. "You feel like you have a lot of weapons. The best thing about it is, you don't know which one is coming."