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Cowboys return to playoff form

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January 10, 2010

Jerry Jones exclaimed, “demons are GONE!” Keith Brooking pretended to pull a monkey off coach Wade Phillips’ back.

And Tony Romo waxed poetic about the process, about getting better every game and hoping for a reward at the end.

In a way, each of their reactions was pretty appropriate considering all the ramifications of the Dallas Cowboys’ 34-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night.

The Cowboys won their first playoff game since Dec. 28, 1996, ending a 4,760-day drought, easily the longest in the club’s proud history. The skid included six losses; a seventh would’ve set an NFL futility record.

Phillips was 0-4 in the playoffs as a head coach, covering stints with Denver and Buffalo, too. Romo was 0-2, with bizarre circumstances surrounding each. Fittingly enough, Phillips’ defense was a huge reason for this victory, and Romo broke the game open with five straight scoring drives in the second quarter.

“It’s just … rewarding,” Romo said. “It makes me proud of the guys in there — fighting, grinding, staying committed to the approach. I’m happy for the guys, happy for Wade, happy for Jerry.”

The Cowboys have dominated their last four games, scoring early and never trailing in any of them. The defense has been the backbone, with the offense coming through with plenty of points and few turnovers. It’s the way Dallas used to play this time of year back in the days of Roger Staubach and Tom Landry, and Troy Aikman and Jimmy Johnson.

Now, it’s finally happening again under Romo and Phillips. Next up for them is a trip to Minnesota on Sunday, with Romo taking on childhood hero Brett Favre.

“This team has hung together all year, got stronger at the end of the year and is playing our best football,” Phillips said. “I think we’re playing as good as anybody right now.”

The Eagles are one-and-done in the playoffs for the first time under coach Andy Reid. Philadelphia had been 7-0 in playoff openers with Reid and 6-0 with Donovan McNabb at quarterback.

But they finished 0-3 against Dallas this season. The Eagles lost 24-0 last weekend and couldn’t change much. They got Michael Vick back from an injury and used him in place of McNabb for a few plays. He threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin on his first snap, tying it at 7 early in the second quarter, but also messed up a handoff deep in his own territory, setting the Cowboys up for the touchdown that made it 24-7.

Dallas stretched the lead to 27-7 at halftime. A 73-yard touchdown run by Felix Jones made it 34-7 going into the fourth quarter.

“They were better all the way around,” Reid said. “When you get your tail kicked, it’s not a great feeling. No one expected it.”

The Cowboys limited the Eagles to 18 snaps in the decisive first half. Philadelphia gained only 140 yards in that span — or, 64 on all plays other than Vick’s TD.

McNabb wound up 19 of 37 for 230 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. DeSean Jackson, who tweeted “we gonna sting (them)” this week, was kept without any huge gains for the third time by Dallas, although he had a 4-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.

Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware had two sacks, Bobby Carpenter had two fumble recoveries and Mike Jenkins recovered from allowing the 76-yard TD by breaking up a long pass and intercepting one. This performance by the defense virtually assures that Jerry Jones will pick up the team option on Phillips next season, since he’s the defensive coordinator as well as the head coach.

“We have something to really build off of,” Brooking said. “With the talent we have (and) we have those types of intangibles and I don’t think there are a lot of teams in this league that can beat us right now.”

Romo finished 23 of 35 for 244 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. He got deep into Philadelphia territory on nine of his first 10 drives, hitting eight receivers. His touchdowns went to rookie John Phillips and Miles Austin, and he even worked beleaguered Roy Williams back into the mix, hitting him five times for 59 yards.

Jones became the featured back with Marion Barber limited to three carries because of a left knee injury that kept him out of practice Thursday. He wound up with a career-best 148 yards on 16 carries, and also turned one short catch into a dazzling 30-yard gain on the opening drive.

Tashard Choice ran 14 times for 42 yards and a touchdown, but was shaken up in the fourth quarter. He was coming off a mild concussion the previous game.

Dallas’ previous playoff win was so long ago that two players from that team are already in the Hall of Fame and two more are finalists for next month’s vote. A series of coaches and quarterbacks couldn’t end the skid.

When this club opened December with a pair of losses, fans braced for another fizzle. Then the team won at undefeated New Orleans and followed that with back-to-back shutouts for the first time in franchise history. There was a vibe about this group being different — more like those guided by Staubach and Aikman.

The winning-tradition angle was stoked Saturday night by clips on the massive videoboards featuring interviews with Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Randy White and Mike Ditka. There were more crowd-pleasing shots of Emmitt Smith, Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan and Charles Haley in the stadium.

Another possible good-luck charm: Dallas won its first Super Bowl in its first season at Texas Stadium and now seems to have something good going during its first season at $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium. If nothing else, this game drew 92,951, the most in NFL history for a playoff game other than the Super Bowl.

NOTES: Vick’s TD pass was the longest of his career, the longest for the Eagles this season and the longest ever against the Cowboys in the postseason. … Romo becomes only the seventh quarterback in team history to win a playoff game, joining Staubach, Aikman, Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Danny White and Steve Beuerlein. … Dallas K Shaun Suisham made field goals of 25 and 48 yards. He missed a 30-yarder last Sunday and was 0 for 1 in his career in the playoffs.