No late-season swoon for Cowboys

Keith Brooking was hooting and hollering long before the Dallas
Cowboys gave 100,000-plus fans something big to cheer about.

During pre-game warm-ups Sunday, Brooking gathered his
teammates near midfield for an inspirational speech.

“We know what we want to do!” Brooking screamed during the
pep talk. “We know where we want to go!”

Unlike the past 13 years’ worth of Cowboys teams, this club
may actually get there.

A 24-0 waxing of Philadelphia was ample proof. In what has
become a wide-open NFC, Dallas will now enter the playoffs with as
good a chance as anyone of reaching Super Bowl XLIV.

Philadelphia is well aware. By losing, the Eagles must return
next weekend for an opening-round rematch at Dallas Cowboys Stadium
after having already lost two regular-season meetings to the
Cowboys.

In other words, Cry Eagles Cry.

“I really believe in all my heart that this team is set up to
make a run at this thing,” Brooking said after the first
back-to-back Cowboys shutouts in the franchise’s 50-year history.

Three weeks ago, few outside the Cowboys locker room saw this
late-season run — let alone an NFC East crown – on the
horizon. Dallas (11-5) was en route to yet another swoon, having
lost consecutive games to the New York Giants and San Diego. But a
24-17 road upset of previously undefeated New Orleans was the first
sign Dallas might rally for its first winning December/January
record since 1996. The Cowboys followed with a 17-0 shutout of
Washington to clinch a playoff berth.

“This year is different,” said center Andre Gurode, who
joined the Cowboys in 2002. “Guys play for each other. Guys believe
in each other. We try not to let anything come between us and
separate us. We’re one big family. I really can’t tell you how it
happened. But it happened.”

My hypothesis: Releasing controversial wide receiver Terrell
Owens and adding a respected veteran like Brooking to a talented
yet immature roster helped. So did the continuing development of
players with names both big (quarterback Tony Romo) and small (wide
receiver Miles Austin). Cowboys coach Wade Phillips also deserves
credit for guiding his squad through some rough times and the
outside pressure that comes with Dallas being the NFL’s glamour
franchise.

“You have to credit Wade, his approach and instilling in
players that we go through an up-and-down season,” said Romo, who
burned the Eagles for 311 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-34
passing. “A world champion is crowned every year in October, but it
doesn’t usually go that way. Keep grinding and you’ll accomplish
your goals.”

The Eagles (11-5) had a chance to achieve three major goals
Sunday: the conference’s No. 2 playoff seed, the NFC East title and
a first-round bye. All slipped through their fingers like the
shotgun snap that quarterback Donovan McNabb fumbled in the second
quarter inside the Dallas red zone. That turnover was one of
multiple opportunities squandered by an offense marred by mistimed
passes and dropped throws. Eagles kicker David Akers added to the
misery early in the third quarter, missing a 53-yard field-goal try
that would have cut the Cowboys’ lead to 17-3. The Eagles needed
every point they could muster with Romo and a strong running game
thumping Philadelphia’s defense from the get-go.

I was admittedly bullish on the Eagles entering the playoffs
after covering last Sunday’s
30-27
home victory over Denver
. I’m not sure where that team was
Sunday. Sloppy execution and a surprising lack of fire against a
hated division rival — especially considering what was at
stake — ended Philadelphia’s six-game winning streak.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Eagles wide receiver Jason
Avant, whose team was blanked for the first time since December
2005. “You don’t want to go into the playoffs playing the way we
did today.”

I still think the Eagles can cause some postseason damage.
But the road to Super Bowl XLIV is now much longer and tougher than
it needed to be — and it runs straight through Dallas.

“Things manifest as you win games,” Cowboys defensive end
Marcus Spears said. “I’ve always felt good about this team. We just
somehow in the past couldn’t get it done. Hopefully, this will
change the course of history of what we’ve been doing here.”

The shift has already begun.