When the Cowboys and Giants last met, Tony Romo was still making way too many mistakes and Miles Austin was an afterthought.
That’s certainly not the trend going into the rematch Sunday.
Since having three passes caught by New York defenders in September, Romo has gone through the cleanest stretch of his career. He’s thrown just four interceptions in nine games, never with as many as two in the same game.
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Among the changes he’s made, the most significant is looking for Austin more often.
Austin has blossomed into one of the most reliable and productive targets in the NFL over the last seven games. In that span, only two players have more yards receiving than his 743, no one has more than his seven touchdowns and his average of 20.1 yards per catch is tops by more than a full yard.
For both players, this rematch with the Giants is more than a chance to show off how much has changed.
A few days after that 33-31 loss, Romo called his sloppy performance a “hiccup” because he knew he could do better. Romo came into this season vowing not to be so careless and that he wasn’t going to let it happen again. And he hasn’t.
“I’ve definitely improved from years past and from that moment,” Romo said Thursday. “But you are always trying to continue to get better, even from what improvement level is. I think there’s always room to grow there.”
Romo’s biggest growth opportunity right now is showing he can win in December and January. He’s 5-10 in his career, dooming the Cowboys to a pair of playoff losses and missing the postseason last year. This time, Dallas is 8-3 and first place in the NFC East going into what could be a defining five-game stretch for Romo and coach Wade Phillips.
Romo has been hearing about December since last season ended. Now that it’s here, he’s sticking with the stock responses he’s been giving all summer: He’s getting better bit by bit, day by day … focusing on things they can control … and this being the biggest game of the year because it’s the next one.
As for it being against the Giants – the team that knocked Romo out of the playoffs a week after his trip to Mexico with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson, and spoiled the debut of the new stadium earlier this season – he simply said, “I suspect our team will be very ready for this.”
“We feel very prepared for this game,” he said, noting the extra days of preparation thanks to last week’s game being on a Thursday. “We know that this is an important, important game in our stretch.”
Part of the excitement for Austin is returning home as a starter, and a star.
Austin grew up in Garfield, N.J., and went to college at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. He’s played there twice before, but only as a backup receiver and a kickoff returner.
“I love New York,” said Austin, who has worn a Yankees hat all week. “I’ve got a lot of friends up there.”
Austin became a Yankees fan because his dad was. However, his dad’s favorite football team was the Raiders, so he doesn’t have any connection to the Giants, other than having been to a few games while growing up.
Austin is buying about 20 tickets, same as he has for the other games against the Giants. While he looks forward to seeing friends and family, he knows “they’re not going to be helping me out on the field, and they’re not going to be blocking me.”
“During the game, you’re so locked in that you’re not really paying attention,” he said.
So there wouldn’t be extra significance to having a big game in the big city, which also is where he’s from?
“For me, it’s the same thing, same approach,” he said. “I’m trying to run the play, whatever the play is, and do it to the best of my ability. … I would love to have, hey, why not, 500 yards, give me whatever you want to give me. But I wouldn’t say specifically for New York. I would like to have a good game anywhere I could get it. On the moon, why not?”