Stories have flipped for Romo, Eli
IRVING, Texas -- One quarterback enters the FOX America's Game of the Week at the top of his game.
The other is a lightning rod for criticism from those who believe he will never be good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Talk about your role reversals.
When the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys played in Week 10 of the 2007 season, Tony Romo was the passer riding high in the saddle. He skewered New York's defense for four touchdowns in a 31-20 road victory while drawing parallels to a young Roger Staubach.
As for Eli Manning, another round of Dave Brown comparisons ensued after he threw two interceptions and was sacked five times. Any Giants fan who knows their team history will tell you that being placed in the same light as Brown isn't a good thing.
Almost five years later, Manning enters Sunday's matchup at Dallas Cowboys Stadium as a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Romo has one playoff victory.
Manning is a legitimate candidate for 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
Romo has more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight).
And from a team standpoint, the Giants (5-2) are surging toward another Lombardi Trophy. The Cowboys (3-3) wouldn't qualify if the playoffs started today.
There is no easy answer to explain what caused the career paths of Manning and Romo to take different directions. Football is a team game where intangibles like coaching, supporting cast and injuries greatly determine one's NFL fate. That's why journeyman quarterback Brad Johnson owns a Super Bowl ring and a Hall of Famer like Dan Marino doesn't.
Comparative passing statistics don't provide a clear picture either. Since that cool autumn Sunday afternoon inside a Meadowlands Stadium that no longer exists, Romo has actually completed a higher percentage of his attempts (64.4) than Manning (61.1). Romo has averaged more passing yards (263.4) and touchdowns (1.76) per game than Manning (253.6/1.59). The average amount of turnovers both have committed is almost equal.
Yet when it comes to the most important numbers of all – wins and losses – Manning has a clear edge. Including the postseason, Manning has a 56-31 starting record since his aforementioned 2007 defeat against the Cowboys. Dallas is 37-30 with Romo under center.
Asked on Thursday whether he's ever thought about why the Giants have accomplished so much over the past five seasons compared to the Cowboys, Romo simply said, "No, I haven't." He then smiled, leaving open the possibility that it had crossed his mind but wasn't a topic he wanted to discuss in the media.
This was wise. Anything he said would have fueled the already polarizing sentiment that Cowboys faithful have toward Romo.
Some feel like Jerry Jones. The Cowboys owner again gushed about Romo this week when describing him as "very capable of being a quarterback who can win a Super Bowl, a franchise quarterback."
And then there are those who believe a championship isn't in the offing and such standing will never be reached. That Romo's best chance to win a Super Bowl was squandered in 2007 when a 13-3 Cowboys squad was upset at home in its opening playoff game by – voila! – the Manning-led Giants.
When it comes to public debate, Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson told FOXSports.com that he has "never seen a player quite like (Romo)." Wilson understands the attention Romo faces from a personal and professional standpoint. Not only was he an NFL quarterback for 17 seasons, Wilson grew up in Texas as a Cowboys fan.
"Playing quarterback for the Cowboys is a high-pressure job," Wilson said. "You're under a lot of scrutiny.
"He's either the best in the world or he's the worst and it's, 'Why is he even in the league?'"
Romo's off-field lifestyle is often cited by his critics, which is something the low-key Manning never had to deal with. To this day, Romo is bashed for heading on a quick vacation to Cabo San Lucas with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson during the team's 2007 playoff bye instead of sticking around even though the Cowboys weren't practicing to face the Giants that weekend.
Being involved in other rendezvous with celebrities gave some the impression that Romo had become more interested in the trappings that come with stardom rather than trying to improve once he had achieved such acclaim. The same goes for Romo's ongoing entry into offseason golf tournaments.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said that couldn't be further from the truth.
"He loves to compete," Garrett told FOXSports.com. "That's why he plays. There are guys who play a lot more golf than Tony does. He just plays it better than everybody else.
"There's a perception about him not being a leader or caring a great deal about football because he plays golf in the offseason or this, that and the other thing. He works very hard at his position and to be the best quarterback and leader he can be."
Even then, it hasn't proven enough — and may not again this year.
Injuries are starting to take a heavy toll on the Cowboys. Inside linebacker Sean Lee, one of the team's best defensive players, was just lost for the season to a toe injury. Dallas will almost certainly be without its two top running backs (DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones) for Sunday's showdown. That puts an even heavier burden on Romo to carry the load.
The Cowboys also have done themselves no favors with inconsistent play ever since an impressive 24-17 upset of New York in the season-opener. Romo lamented missed opportunities – specifically a dropped pass, an overthrown ball, a missed block and a mental error on a running play – that kept last Sunday's 19-14 road victory over lowly Carolina a lot closer than it needed to be.
The previous week, a series of gaffes in the final minute contributed to a 31-29 loss at Baltimore. Those are the types of clutch situations where Manning has thrived.
"That's how small the window is sometimes between winning and losing in the NFL," Romo said. "It comes down to some small things."
At age 32, Romo's days with the Cowboys aren't coming toward an end even if the franchise falls short once again. Jones made that clear earlier this week when saying, "We have a quarterback here in Tony Romo for many years to come."
The Giants, though, have the same in a 31-year-old Manning. That makes it even more painful for the Cowboys to reflect on what could have been had Romo and Manning not traded places along the way.