NFL Wild Card Cheat Sheet: Romo has hit a high point in his career

We in the sports media tend to lean on hyperbole a bit too much. A routine punt return for a score is instantly dubbed "unbelievable," though certainly it can be believed, because one just like it happens every other weekend. A tennis match that goes five sets is described as "unforgettable" or an "instant classic," but rest assured, even the breathless Twitter mob watching it from afar has forgotten it by the next morning.

I’m always cautious of hyperbole. It trips you up; makes your words seem weightless.

So, I say this with no hyperbole whatsoever: Tony Romo is currently playing the best football of his NFL career.

Lost in the J.J. Watt MVP chatter and Aaron Rodgers’ dream season was a December to remember for the guy who’s long been forced to forget the month altogether. Romo, at 34 years old, and facing arguably the most pressure-packed four-game swing of his NFL career, silenced any doubters by lighting it up in Chicago on national television, in Philadelphia on a Sunday night, home against the Colts, and on the road in Washington in Week 17. The Cowboys scored more than 38 points in all four of their December games, and Romo finished the best season of his NFL career with a QB rating (113.2) and completion percentage (69.9) — career highs — that led the league. These past four weeks, he had the highest December passer rating (133.7) in NFL history (minimum 100 pass attempts).

Romo’s no spring chicken and he — perhaps more than anyone — has seen the ups and the downs of the NFL. A negative "big game" stigma follows Peyton Manning; it haunts Romo. And yet he is currently playing at a level we haven’t seen from him before. Think back to the 2014 offseason, in which Romo was coming off yet another surgery, and there were concerns over his missing practices throughout training camp. The Cowboys were expected to be even worse than they were a season ago, and the defense was without stars DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, and Jason Hatcher. Hell, there were whispers about Dallas wanting to draft Johnny Manziel (they got Zack Martin, a Pro Bowl guard, instead) back in April.

Week 1, Romo played terribly against the 49ers, threw a few forced interceptions, and everyone got their pitchforks out for Jason Garrett’s head. Final year left on the coach’s contract. "Why not just cut the cord?" they asked on the screaming talking head shows. There was talk of 3-13, or maybe 0-16.

But then there’s Romo. Not a 25-year-old quarterback, scared of the moment and prone to listening to such toxicity. There’s Romo, the veteran, soothing presence, the leader who has seen much more dire times than this. There’s Romo on the cusp of the greatest season of quietly distinguished NFL career.

Tony Romo’s not the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He’s not necessarily the best quarterback suiting up on Sunday. But Romo’s never played as well as he has this season, and specifically the past few weeks.

There’s no calling "hyperbole" on that.

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WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVA QUESTION 1

DeMarco Murray had 12 different 100-yard rushing games in 2014. Only one other player in NFL history had more 100-yard rushing games in a season. Who was it, and what year did he do it?

WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION 2

Of all the active NFL quarterbacks, four of the top seven leaders in career wins (starts in the regular season and postseason) will be suiting up for playoff teams this year. Who are those four quarterbacks?

WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK

Each week, we like to give you a throwback jersey you should buy and wear while watching the games. In honor of the Cardinals’ trip to Carolina, pick up this tremendous Jim Hart St. Louis Cardinals top.

And, now on to the picks.

SATURDAY

Arizona at Carolina: The Cardinals and Panthers were two of my favorite teams to see in person this year. The former dealt with injuries at key positions better than any other squad in the league and at times, featured a rotation of four defensive tackle/defensive ends — Calais Campbell, Tommy Kelly, Frostee Rucker and Dan Williams — that played such a punishing style of defense that it was hard to imagine any team having any bit of success in the running game against them. Watching Arizona this season hasn’t been pretty, per se, but seeing guys like Kelly, linebacker Larry Foote, and guard Ted Larsen play the best football of their careers, when other teams assumed their best football was behind them, has been inspiring.

MORE CARDINALS

Carolina, meanwhile, took the slow ride to the top. They are the first team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to lose six straight games in a season and still win its division. They lost ugly, too. They didn’t belong on the same field as the Ravens, Panthers or Packers when they squared off earlier this year. Perhaps it was recovering from the Greg Hardy hangover, but the defense suddenly found its groove when it mattered most. Over the past four weeks Carolina’s D looks as good as it did when it was at its very best a season ago. Two names nobody’s talking about that you’ll see a lot of on Saturday — cornerback Josh Norman and safety Colin Jones. The former absolutely owned Josh Gordon and Julio Jones the past two weeks, and the latter is the best player you’ve never heard of. One opposing NFL coach described Jones, a stout safety who hits like he’s some sort of Chuck Cecil/Steve Atwater hybrid — a "freak." This unit’s finally coming together and the offense is running the ball better than it has all season. I love both of these squads and think their 2014 seasons could be case studies on overcoming adversity, but only one can win. Give me the Panthers in as hard-hitting a game as we’ll see this postseason.

The Pick: Panthers 19, Cardinals 13

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: The Ravens have won 10 games in 2014, but just two of those victories came against eventual playoff participants — a Week 2 win at home over the Steelers and a Week 4 demolishing of the Panthers. Other than that, Baltimore’s struggled with the league’s best and has had its fair share of trouble with some of its least accomplished quarterbacks of late. The last two weeks haven’t been a walk in the park for Baltimore. The Ravens lost to Case Keenum in Houston and nearly lost at home to Connor Shaw in Week 17. Ben Roethlisberger’s not Keenum or Shaw. He has 114 more career wins than both of those guys combined.

But there are few better January quarterbacks in NFL history than Flacco. Big Game Joe has beaten Peyton Manning in Denver, Tom Brady in New England twice and the last time we saw him in postseason mode, he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions en route to a Lombardi Trophy and a Super Bowl MVP. A $100 million man with the ring and the resume, there’s still one unchecked box on his list — he’s 0-2 all-time against the Steelers in the playoffs, and has yet to beat Ben Roethlisberger in a postseason game. The Ravens are big underdogs, but their quarterback has played that role to perfection plenty of times before. I just don’t see this Baltimore team going into Pittsburgh on a Saturday night and coming out on top.

The Pick: Steelers 31, Ravens 20

SUNDAY

Cincinnati at Indianapolis: It’s been 25 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game, a 41-14 walloping of the Houston Oilers in which Cody Carlson and Boomer Esiason were the starting quarterbacks. Cody Carlson! It’s just been a few months, though, since the Colts defense absolutely manhandled the Bengals offense in a 27-0 win at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts have been up and down all season, and if the Ravens have a bad success rate against the NFL’s best, Indianapolis could be worse. Aside from that win over Cincinnati and an October victory over the Ravens, Indianapolis went 0-4 against the other playoff participants they faced in 2014. The Colts haven’t been themselves as of late, but I don’t see them losing in their building. Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and Adam Jones have been down this road too many times in recent years, but I don’t see the drought ending on Sunday. T.Y. Hilton goes bonkers, Reggie Wayne makes a few plays and Andrew Luck proves why he’s still the best young quarterback in the game.

The Pick: Colts 30, Bengals 20

Detroit at Dallas: The Cowboys were a lot better off when Mr. Suh was sidelined for this one. Now, Dallas has to face the game’s best defensive tackle in what could be his last game as a Detroit Lion on national television (when he is at his best and, at times, meanest). Another offensive line, I’d be concerned. But this unit has played too well and been too stout all season long to allow Suh, Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Detroit front seven to have its way. We’re used to seeing both these teams on Thanksgiving. A national audience will get them both at once, here. One fun side note — Rod Marinelli, the coach of the 0-16 Lions who was fired by Detroit a few years back — could get the last laugh as the Cowboys defensive coordinator in this one. Everyone’s waiting for the other shoe to drop on this Dallas team. I don’t see it happening just yet.

The Pick: Cowboys 31, Lions 16

READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK

Peter,

I’ve seen all the big blockbusters but am home for another week, off from work. Give me a movie I haven’t seen that I should, please. I trust your opinion, though I do remember you liked "Draft Day." "Draft Day" was terrible.  

Henry,

Glendale, Arizona

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Henry,

What were you expecting from "Draft Day" exactly, Henry? It’s called "Draft Day." What’d you want, an Oscar-winning performance from Denis Leary in the role of a lifetime? It was fine. I saw it on a plane and didn’t hate it. You were upset that they didn’t incorporate sexy things like the salary cap or the collective bargaining agreement? You wanted MORE realism from a movie called "Draft Day" that starred Kevin Costner. If you want a great movie that is better than "Draft Day," see "Whiplash" starring the always great J.K. Simmons. It’s a movie about a college-aged drummer and a difficult coach, but it felt like a sports movie from beginning to end. It’s shot beautifully and it has you on the edge of your seat the whole way. It might not break any box office records, but you’ll like it. And go watch "Draft Day" again, you snob.

FAIL MARY II: MORE MNF CONTROVERSY

WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER 1

Barry Sanders had 14 different 100-yard rushing games in 1997. He retired from the NFL after the following season.

WILD-CARD WEEKEND SHEET SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER 2

Peyton Manning (190), Tom Brady (178), Ben Roethlisberger (116), and Matt Hasselbeck (85) are first, second, fourth and seventh on the career wins list for active NFL quarterbacks.