11-28-07 - For Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, their ascendancy into the NFC's elite was almost expected. For Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, their stunning resurgence to get there was not.
The two quarterbacks lead their respective 10-1 teams into a highly anticipated showdown Thursday at Texas Stadium, with the winner gaining the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
It marks the first time two teams with records of 10-1 or better will face off since the 10-1 New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers played on Dec. 3, 1990, and just the eighth time in NFL history. The team that wins will clinch a playoff berth, and could secure a division title by the end of the weekend.
The Cowboys can end the NFC East race if they win this game while the New York Giants lose Sunday, and the Packers would wrap up the NFC North with a victory along with a Sunday loss by the Detroit Lions.
Even with a coaching change, the Cowboys have lived up to the expectations placed upon them even after a devastating first-round loss in last year's playoffs, when Romo failed to hold a clean snap for a potential game-winning field goal against Seattle.
Coach Wade Phillips, whose demeanor is in stark contrast to demanding taskmaster and predecessor Bill Parcells, has helped Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens flourish in an offense which has Dallas leading the NFC with 358 points.
While Favre returned to Green Bay after contemplating retirement for the second straight offseason, few imagined the three-time NFL MVP could lead the Packers to the top of the NFC after they went 8-8 last year and 4-12 in 2005. He has thrown only eight interceptions, completed passes at a career-high 68.5-percent clip and is on target for his fifth 4,000-yard season while becoming the NFL's all-time leader in numerous categories over the course of the season.
The Cowboys are coming off arguably their most complete performance in a 34-3 rout of the New York Jets on Thanksgiving Day for their fifth consecutive victory. Romo threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Owens, and Marion Barber rushed for a season-high 103 yards and a score as Dallas controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes.
Terence Newman returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown and Greg Ellis had two sacks, highlighting a performance that saw the Cowboys limit the Jets to nine first downs and 180 total yards.
"We have focused at the game at hand, and I think we will continue to do that," Phillips said. "We will certainly focus on this one. ... If we play our best, we are going to do well."
Romo enters this game already tied for the single-season team record for touchdown passes with 29, established by Danny White in 1983. He also seems a near-lock to better White's single-season club record of 3,980 passing yards set that season.
A native of Burlington, Wisc., Romo grew up rooting for Favre and the Packers and is excited to start against them for the first time.
"I just think it's going to be fun," said Romo, who has completed 75.0 percent of his passes for 1,336 yards and 14 touchdowns during the winning streak. "Any time you play in a big game it's enjoyable. The fact it's the Packers is exciting for me."
Owens has 13 TD catches - matching his total from 2006 - and is one shy of the 1962 team record held by Frank Clarke. Nine of those touchdowns have come during the win streak, in which he has 37 receptions for 640 yards.
Romo likely will have his other top receiving target in Patrick Crayton, who missed last week's game due to a sprained ankle. Crayton has 33 receptions for 482 yards, close to his career highs of 36 and 516, respectively, set last season.
"He practiced full speed, so I'm comfortable as long as he didn't have any setbacks," Phillips said of Crayton on Tuesday.
Barber's best game of the season came after he rushed for only 133 yards in his prior three contests, and he has surpassed his 2006 total of 654 yards.
Favre threw for three touchdowns and a season-high 381 yards as the Packers all but secured the NFC North title with a 37-26 victory at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, opening a four-game lead on the Lions with five to play. It was the third straight game Favre has thrown three touchdown passes and his seventh 300-yard game of 2007.
Besides Favre cutting down on his interceptions - he had as many as 29 in 2005 - his offensive line also has played a key role. Favre has been sacked only eight times this year while throwing 425 times, a figure not lost on Ellis, who enters this game with 8 1/2 sacks.
"I think he's playing the best right now that I've ever seen him play, even better than when they had their Super Bowl runs," said Ellis, whose switch to linebacker has complemented DeMarcus Ware, who leads Dallas with nine sacks.
"Completions and yards are just really outstanding. ... He's not getting sacked a whole lot for the amount of passes he throws. That says a whole lot. He's getting the ball out on time."
But Favre has a long, empty history at Texas Stadium, where he is 0-8 lifetime and 0-5 in the regular season. The Cowboys eliminated Favre and the Packers in the playoffs three straight seasons from 1993-95, twice going on to win the Super Bowl.
Defensively, the Packers are holding out hope cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will be able to play. Woodson, the anchor of the secondary, hurt the big toe on his right foot on a punt return at Detroit and is currently listed as questionable, but coach Mike McCarthy thinks the 10-year-veteran will be on the field.
"I am going to give him every opportunity to play," McCarthy said. "He's pretty much around-the-clock in the training room. He's improving. He's dealt with this injury before. He's making progress."
Gbaja-Biamila is questionable with an ankle injury.
The Packers have won seven consecutive road games, one shy of the franchise record last accomplished in the 1966 and 1967 seasons.
While this is one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season, much of the nation may not be able to watch it. The game is being televised by the NFL Network, and the league is still negotiating with cable companies - most notably Comcast and Time Warner - over whether the network will be available on a basic tier or a premium sports tier.
The NFL wants the channel available on the basic tier while the cable companies prefer to make it a premium channel. Comcast, which successfully sued to have the NFL Network moved to an "a la carte" sports tier, recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to the NFL Network, claiming it was encouraging subscribers to drop Comcast.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones voiced his displeasure, encouraging subscribers to cancel their service with Time Warner - the primary cable provider in the Dallas area - and other companies that do not carry the NFL Network or make it available among basic tier offerings.