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Witten will be tested by Eagles' D

Previewing Cowboys-Eagles and more.
Previewing Cowboys-Eagles and more.
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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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There was no immediate to-do when Jason Witten set the Dallas Cowboys’ career receptions record.

AMERICA'S GAME

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Nor did the tight end expect it during a road game Sunday in Atlanta or afterward with his team having fallen to 3-5 following a 19-13 loss to the Falcons.

In fact, Witten didn't even realize he had broken the franchise mark of 750 catches previously held by Michael Irvin when he made a 7-yard grab midway through the fourth quarter. Witten was more concerned with the next play as quarterback Tony Romo orchestrated a no-huddle attack.

None of this diminishes the importance of what Witten has accomplished in 10 seasons with the Cowboys, or his gratitude to Dallas wide receiver Kevin Ogletree for giving him the football used on the play. Witten also is appreciative that Irvin contacted him with congratulatory voicemail and text messages.

"One day when I look back at it, I want to show this record the respect it deserves," Witten told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. "I am humbled to break it. A lot of great skill players have worn the (Cowboys) star on their helmets.

"To say I'm the leading receiver is special, but my focus has always been on the team and helping us win."

For Witten and Dallas, victory is essentially a must Sunday as the Cowboys visit the Philadelphia Eagles in the FOX America's Game of the Week (4:25 p.m. ET). Both clubs are 3-5 and on losing streaks. The one that doesn't win Sunday will be on the verge of playoff elimination, setting the stage for wholesale changes in 2013 that potentially include a new head coach.

"We're still a confident group," Witten said. “We've had three or four really close games and were just barely on the losing end. We have to execute better, obviously. It's going to be a fight going to Philly because we know their backs are against the wall, too."

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Unlike against fellow NFC East opponents Washington and the New York Giants, Witten hasn't had a 100-yard receiving performance against Philadelphia in a nine-game span dating to September 2008. The Eagles, though, must do a better job of stopping Witten than they did Monday night against New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. He caught a team-high eight passes for 72 yards and one touchdown in a 28-13 victory.

Before that, Philadelphia had done a nice job keeping quality tight ends like Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez (three catches for 29 yards), Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (three for 38) and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (four for 41) in check.

"They've done a couple different things (coverage-wise)," Witten said. "Sometimes, they play regular zone, but they've got a lot of confidence in their safeties being able to cover the tight end. And, at times, they've used (cornerback) Nnamdi Asomugha inside."

Pressed to assess his season from a personal standpoint, Witten allowed that 2012 is one of his "better years." Although he's only scored one touchdown and is on pace to finish with his lowest per-catch average (9.3 yards), Witten still leads all NFL tight ends with 58 receptions for 538 yards.

Witten also has enjoyed two games that have added to his Cowboys legacy. The first was playing in the season-opening win against the Giants despite not being fully recovered from a serious spleen injury. The second was catching a franchise-record 18 passes during a 29-24 loss in the Week 8 rematch.

"I've played well," Witten said. "I had a couple of drops early on after my spleen injury, but since then, I've put that behind me. Tony and I are completing a high percentage of passes between us. I'd like to have more opportunities in the red zone to score, but I feel like we're locked in."

As the list of personal accolades and records continues to grow on what may be a Hall of Fame resume, Witten hasn't lost sight of what matters most to him.

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"Ultimately at this point in my career, success is finding ways to win games," said Witten, a 2003 third-round draft choice. "There is disappointment among the core group of guys on this team. We've got a good group of great leaders and a team that's done a good job of being accountable.

"We understand what the expectations are for this organization, and that all rides on us. We have to focus on grabbing this opportunity."

When he does ultimately reflect on the past in retirement, Witten won't have to wonder "what if" about playing tight end. As chronicled by ex-Cowboys personnel chief Gil Brandt, Witten agreed to attend the University of Tennessee as long as he remained at defensive end. But when injuries ravaged the tight end position, Witten agreed to switch to the other side of the ball.

"Yeah, it's pretty amazing how the story goes," said Witten, 30. "I've been blessed to have my grandfather as my high school coach and a lot of people who believed in me and taught me the game.

"I love playing. That's the thing I'm most passionate about. It's not the records. Every week, I just want to give everything I have out there. I think something like that shows."

Tagged: Falcons, Cowboys, Eagles, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Tony Romo

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