Monday November 12th, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The calendar says there's still another seven weeks to play. But we don't need that long to discover the pecking order in the NFC East.

It's the Dallas Cowboys, followed by three teams that can only wish they were the Dallas Cowboys. I've seen enough to know that. How about you?

How much better are the Cowboys than the New York Giants, the next best team the division has to offer? Well, Dallas beat New York by 10 points in Week 1, and by 11 on Sunday in Giants Stadium. And if they happen to play again somehow, I'd like the Cowboys by 12. So give me Dallas by double-digits against the rest of the NFC East, and call me when you're ready to concede the argument.

In back-to-back weeks, Dallas has gone on the road within the division to beat Philadelphia and the Giants by a combined 69-37. The Cowboys are 8-1 overall, 7-0 in the NFC, 3-0 in the division, 5-0 on the road, and haven't lost away from Texas Stadium in the regular season in more than a year -- since a Week 9 defeat at Washington on Nov. 5, 2006.

Whether or not Dallas is bound for supremacy over the entire NFC is a matter that probably won't be resolved until the Cowboys play host to Green Bay (8-1) in Week 13. But Wade Phillips' team just took the best shot that a fellow NFC East team could deliver, and didn't flinch. The Cowboys' 31-20 mashing of the red-hot Giants wasn't dominating from start to finish, but it was decisive when it mattered, with Dallas outscoring New York 14-3 to break a 17-17 halftime tie.

"Our team came out in second half just about like we have all year, and we played well,'' Phillips said. "When the pressure's on they seem to play better. We just told them [the score was] was nothing-nothing. We've done that all year. The second half is ours, so just go out and do it.''

The Cowboys went out and did it in the second half against a Giants team that was trying to pull into a tie for the division lead, and win its seventh in a row for the first time since 1990 -- New York's most recent Super Bowl season. During its six-game winning streak New York had allowed just 79 points, an average of 13.1 per game. But against the Cowboys, the Giants looked more like the team that had gotten hammered 45-35 at Texas Stadium on the first Sunday night of the season.

Yes, the regular season is only nine games old. But instead of being tied for the division lead, the Cowboys have what amounts to a three-game lead over the second-place Giants (6-3) with seven remaining. Dallas still has three games left with the Redskins (5-4) and Eagles (4-5), but this division race is over, and the Cowboys can start shifting their focus to bigger and better things.

"A win like tonight just adds to your confidence,'' Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "Every once in a while if you do something like this, you've got a chance to do something special. I'm not into statement games. We're into winning football games. We're just trying to get ourselves in position for the really fun stuff in January and February.

"We got a big win on the road, against a good ballclub. I haven't looked at the standings yet, but obviously we were in first coming in and we're still there. I think that bodes well.''

While New York self-destructed in the second half beneath a deluge of critical penalties that recalled the undisciplined Giants of last year, the Cowboys steadied themselves at halftime and left no doubt about the state of their offensive firepower or their potential for defensive dominance. Romo threw for 247 yards and four touchdowns, but the two that settled things were both to Terrell Owens in the second half, when the quarterback found his star receiver in critical situations.

On the first, Owens burned Giants cornerback Sam Madison down the right sideline from 25 yards out after Madison tried to jam T.O. at the line, putting Dallas up 24-17 with 7:14 left in the third quarter. On the second, a 50-yard Owens touchdown catch, Romo lofted it up and let T.O. run under as he motored past Giants free safety Gibril Wilson. That made it 31-20 with 10:43 left in the final quarter, and essentially ended any chance of a Giants comeback.

"We've got a great offense,'' Phillips said, in a moment of postgame candor. "We don't have a good offense. We have a great offense. We're able to score a lot of points, and that's the big thing.''

The Giants certainly had no answer for Romo, T.O., or even fellow Dallas receiver Patrick Crayton (five catches for 66 yards, and a touchdown). They sacked Romo just twice, despite having an NFL-high 30 coming into the game, and Owens made them pay with six big catches for 125 yards and the aforementioned touchdowns.

If the Giants defense represented the best the NFC had to offer at the moment, the Cowboys offense was clearly the victor in that inner-game duel. Dallas has now scored 76 points against New York in two games, and the Cowboys got things done Sunday without the benefit of their usual running game production (82 yards on 24 carries, 3.4 average).

The Cowboys are approaching greatness on offense, and they know it. At least greatness by NFC standards. Or at least the non-New England class within the NFL. Someone asked Owens afterward if the Cowboys finally have their swagger back. Watching Dallas on offense these days, it almost goes without saying.

"If you want to call it swagger, but it's that confidence that we know we can go out and beat teams, no matter how the game may play out," Owens said. "Coming in here, there was a little trash-talking by [the Giants]. But we came here, and the game was played, and I felt like we made a statement.''

With his third consecutive 100-yard receiving game, Owens is starting to make the loudest statement each week for Dallas. And he's doing his talking on the field for a change, rather than in the locker room. With his two on Sunday, Owens has eight touchdown catches in nine games, a pace that would exceed his league-leading 13 scoring grabs in 2006.

"Anytime it's a big-time game, and the lights are on, I try to do my part,'' Owens said. "I try to do my best and try to shine for this team and be the play-maker that I want to be. This is why I felt [Cowboys owner] Jerry [Jones] brought me here. I want to be the play-maker for this team.

"I know every play can be a big play, whether it's passing or running. We've got teams kind of on their heels a little bit, and they've got a lot to contend with. You saw it tonight. With this offense, we're capable of putting points on the board.''

The Cowboys have got people on their heels all right. But I beg to differ on the contention part. There's no one to contend with Dallas in the NFC East this season. After Sunday, that much is apparent, even if there are seven more weeks left in the regular season. The division will belong to the Cowboys in 2007. The only question remaining is how much more is in store for Dallas after that?

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