Tony Romo has Cowboys on playoff cusp

METAIRIE — A scratch golfer has the Dallas Cowboys and their restless fan base itching for more this holiday season.

Through 14 games, veteran quarterback Tony Romo has teased and titillated Cowboys Nation, leading his team back from potential disaster at 3-5 to a season filled with promise now at 8-6, in the hunt for a division championship.

Romo arguably is playing the best football of his 10-year career. But can he make this a December to remember for a storied franchise that judges its quarterbacks solely by the number of Lombardi trophies they win?

So far, Romo is a one-hit wonder, in this, his seventh consecutive season in a starting role.

One playoff victory, that is.

The Cowboys are 3-0 this month and have vaulted into a three-way tie with the hot Washington Redskins and the slumping New York Giants atop the NFC East. One must go back to the Super Bowl XXXIII season of 1993 with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin to find the last time the Cowboys won four consecutive games in December.

Enter the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Texas-born quarterback Drew Brees, who wants nothing more than to slow down the Dallas postseason express Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

Brees versus Romo: Game on.

“He has Brett Favre-like characteristics,’’ Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said when asked if Romo is among the NFL’s top tier of quarterbacks that include Peyton and Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Brees. “He buys time, has pocket awareness, can make the impromptu play and has his ‘A game’ going right now.

“I know that’s some special company that we are putting him in, but that’s the kind of skill he has when he is hot.’’

Unquestionably, Romo is en fuego, particularly during the Cowboys’ recent 5-1 stretch that has seen them beat Cincinnati on a last-second field goal and defeat Cleveland and Pittsburgh in overtime. In those six games, he has completed 168 of 250 passes for 1,875 yards, with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, for a stellar 100.3 passer rating.

The 12-to-3 touchdown-to-interception best illustrates his performance, compared to 10-to-13 over the first eight games during which he threw five picks against Chicago and four against the Giants, both losses.

That was then, and this is now.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we’re a mentally tough football team,’’ said Romo, whose fourth quarter passer rating of 101.9 places him fourth among NFL quarterbacks. “I believe that when we step on the field in the fourth quarter and we’re behind 10 to 14 points, we’re going to find a way to win the ball game.’’

In part because of Romo’s late-game heroics, the Cowboys suddenly find themselves in a position to win the NFC East simply by beating the Saints and Washington Redskins in their last two games. Dallas also can win the division with a win against the Redskins in Week 17 and a Giants’ loss in one of their final two games.

In the final analysis, the Cowboys’ postseason hopes begin and end with Romo, not to mention the coaching fate of Jason Garrett, whose job security under owner Jerry Jones could hinge on the team reaching the postseason.

“He is playing very well, there’s no question about it,’’ Garrett said of Romo, who has one year remaining on a six-year, $67.4 million contract extension that runs through 2013. “You want to get to a point where you are not really looking around to see what other people are doing, and that if you take care of your business, you can control your destiny.

“We are certainly at that point. We are focused on the task at hand and that’s the New Orleans Saints this week.’’


The Saints got some good news Friday when tackle Zach Strief, who was inactive for last week’s game with an ankle injury, had full participation in Friday’s practice and is probable for Sunday. … The only player ruled out was FB Jed Collins (knee/toe). CB Patrick Robinson (groin) and RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) were limited Friday and are questionable. RB Pierre Thomas (knee) and TE Jimmy Graham (wrist) are probable along with Strief. … For the Cowboys, NT Jay Tarliff (groin) is out, while LB Ernie Sims (concussion) and WR Kevin Ogletree (illness) are questionable. ... Former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) is among six Cowboys listed as probable.