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The inspiration for the Cowboys' playoff run was bound to a stretcher, his arms and legs fastened by black straps, his face mask removed, his head held still by a white band across the crown of his helmet. In a suite above Cowboys Stadium, the owner closed his eyes. On the field below, the man on the stretcher opened his, quietly telling himself he had not played his final down in the NFL, even as a cart drove him to an ambulance beneath the stadium and the ambulance drove him to Dallas's Presbyterian Hospital.
"I just didn't think that would be my last play, going out on a stretcher," says Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whose head had collided with the thigh of Chargers lineman Brandyn Dombrowski in that Dec. 13 game. "Usually when guys leave the field like that, it's pretty bad. My destiny, I guess, is to play ball."
The injury was merely a sprained neck, thankfully. Ware was back on the field six days later, and he's been playing ball with growing ferocity since then, tormenting Drew Brees in Week 15, harassing Jason Campbell in Week 16, running down Donovan McNabb in consecutive games and turning the Dallas defense into the sudden bullies of the NFL. In the Cowboys' 34--14 wild-card victory over Philadelphia last Saturday night—the franchise's first playoff win since 1996--they demolished their division rival for the second time in six days. The defense rendered silent one of the league's juggernauts, smothering McNabb's Eagles with power and speed and offering a glimpse of the havoc they plan to unleash against Brett Favre and the Vikings in the NFC divisional playoff at Minnesota on Sunday.
"We're getting a lot of turnovers and a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and it's a good time to have it right now," Ware said. "[Favre] presents a whole lot of challenges. We can't let him sit back there because he'll pick us apart."
Against a huge but vulnerable Philly line, the 6'4", 262-pound Ware ran rampant over the same field he was carried off a month ago. He plowed his way through traffic, pushed around Eagles blockers and, on one sequence late in the fourth quarter, dived full out in pursuit of McNabb. With his body parallel to the turf, Ware raised his right arm and brought it down on McNabb like a guillotine, hammering the ball free. The Cowboys recovered it. Ware's teammates stood in awe. "Not human," said nosetackle Jay Ratliff. "To run [McNabb] down and jump like 12 feet, I've never seen that before."
Ware's dominance has been a critical factor in the Cowboys' revival. A year ago the Eagles ended Dallas's season with a 44--6 thumping in Philadelphia that exposed the Cowboys and ultimately changed them. "I've never been humbled like that in football, but your past molds you," says tight end Jason Witten, who was in the middle of last season's drama involving receiver Terrell Owens and quarterback Tony Romo. "Moving forward together and being accountable to each other has started with the quarterback and the way he's playing. For Tony, you're looked upon how well you do in the playoffs. That's something we all feel."
Indeed, Romo's calm has permeated the offense, which has been as productive as the defense has been stingy. The seventh-year quarterback had lost his two previous playoff starts, fumbling a snap on a potential game-winning field goal against the Seahawks in January 2007 and playing spottily against the underdog Giants the next year. Now he'll stand across the field from Favre, his boyhood idol, the stakes growing higher by the week. "I've always said if you're good you'll win," said Romo. "If I wasn't good enough to win a playoff game as a quarterback, then I never would have."
Said oft-beleaguered third-year coach Wade Phillips, who took over the Cowboys' defensive play-calling this season, "For Tony and me, [the win] takes a lot [of pressure] off of us. But more for this team and our fans—we don't have to hear we haven't won a playoff game."
The Cowboys defense has 147 sacks over the last three seasons, more than any other team in the league. Ware has accounted for 45 of those on his own. As a student at Auburn (Ala.) High he used to sell sodas at Auburn Tigers football games, but when the Tigers didn't recruit him Ware enrolled at the only college to offer him a scholarship, Troy. He spent one off-season working in a chicken barn, standing in bird droppings and scooping up eggs for 10 cents apiece. Dallas drafted him with the 11th pick in 2005, and in October the Cowboys rewarded him with a six-year, $78 million contract. No defensive player has meant more to the team.
"For him to come back [from the neck injury] and play the way he's been playing has been huge for us," said Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer. "We would have had to change a lot of things if he wasn't here. I'm grateful."