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Breaking Away

With a diamond star pinned to the left lapel of his blue suit, Jerry Jones was waiting in the breezeway of Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon when the door to the visitors' locker room swung open. In small clusters the Dallas Cowboys filed past him toward the field -- Terrell Owens, the mercurial receiver on his third NFL marriage; Wade Phillips, the quiet coach from the league's recycling bin; Tony Romo, the newly minted $67 million quarterback of obscure origin. When the team's new nosetackle, Tank Johnson, appeared in the door, Jones approached his latest reclamation project and offered some perspective on the set-to he was about to face. "Well, here we are," the owner told Johnson. "New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys. We're a little distance from four or five weeks ago." That's when the Cowboys were reeling from a painful loss to the Patriots and Johnson, who signed with Dallas on Sept. 18, had just begun practicing with the team.

Three hours later, after Romo had tossed four touchdown passes, Owens had caught two and Johnson had stuffed Eli Manning for a fourth-quarter sack in a 31-20 victory, the Cowboys showed just how far ahead they are in the NFC East and, maybe, in the entire conference. The victory raised their record to 8-1, gave them a two-game lead (plus the tiebreaker) over the Giants, kept Dallas undefeated on the road and set up a potential showdown for home field advantage against the 8-1 Packers in Dallas on Nov. 29.

The win also signaled that the Cowboys have recovered from their 48-27 loss to New England -- and that they might offer a stiffer test should the two meet again in Arizona in February. "This is why I felt Jerry brought me here," said Owens, who finished with six catches for 125 yards, his third consecutive game with at least 100 yards receiving. "I want to be the playmaker for this team."

Amid pushing, shoving and plenty of jawing, the Cowboys handled a team that was eager for a rematch after a 45-35 loss in Dallas in Week 1. If it's an NFL axiom that all division games are created equal, the Giants seemed to understand that this second meeting was more equal than others. At stake was a share of first place and the lengthening of a six-game winning streak, which began when New York made a goal line stand against the Redskins in Week 3 to avoid falling to 0-3. The Giants' first-year defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, had in recent weeks hatched a pass-rushing scheme so potent that his defensive ends started a pool among themselves based on such stats as sacks and forced fumbles. The Giants chose to wear their seldom-used red jerseys, one more indication that they viewed the matchup with Dallas as extra special. "They are beautiful," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said of the uniforms. "They look real good when you see a swarm of red."

The scarlet swarm never materialized. The Cowboys' offensive line mostly held at bay a Giants' rush that had sacked Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a phenomenal 12 times in Week 4. Romo was sacked only twice. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 247 yards, finding Owens in favorable matchups and capitalizing with quick strikes. With Owens lined up one-on-one against cornerback Sam Madison down the right sideline in the third quarter, Romo delivered a 25-yard strike that broke a 17-17 tie. T.O.'s second touchdown came with 10:58 remaining in the game, when he sped down the middle of the field, motored past safety Gibril Wilson and hauled in a 50-yard pass.

At that point, many of the 78,964 fans rose from their seats and headed for the New Jersey Turnpike. By leaving, they missed Johnson's first sack as a Cowboy, when he spun past guard Chris Snee to take down a helpless Manning. "They're 1-3 in those jerseys," said Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett after the game. "They need to throw them away."

After their 2006 season ended with Romo's fumble of a field-goal snap in the wild-card game against Seattle -- followed by coach Bill Parcells's departure two weeks later -- the Cowboys are off to their best start since 1995, their last Super Bowl championship season. "I couldn't have thought we'd be 8-1," Jones says. "Romo has exceeded what I thought he would be, and our offensive line has advanced beyond what I'd hoped. I think this team will have more ability to do things people haven't seen before as we go into the playoffs."

Perhaps borrowing from the philosophy of the Patriots (who in recent years added perceived problem players Corey Dillon and Randy Moss), Jones signed Johnson to a two-year deal despite Johnson's host of legal woes. In November 2005 he was sentenced to probation in Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge. In December '06 police found unlicensed firearms in his suburban Chicago house, and he was jailed for two months for violating probation; he also served a concurrent 45 days on another misdemeanor gun charge. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games, and the Chicago Bears cut him in June after a highly publicized traffic stop in Arizona, even though he was neither booked nor charged in the incident.

Jones, who'd gambled on players with troubled pasts before, consulted with many people around the league on Johnson, including Goodell. "Roger thought he deserved a second opportunity," says Jones, who needed a defensive tackle after starter Jason Ferguson went down for the season with a torn biceps in Week 1. The owner also spoke with his quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson, who'd been on the Bears' staff for the three years that Johnson was in Chicago, where, at 6' 3" and 300 pounds, he made a name as a run stuffer who could slip in for an occasional sack. "Wade said he was a good teammate," Jones says. "With a change of environment or different circumstances, he can be who he was, talentwise."

Johnson entered the game on the Giants' second possession, slapped low fives with defensive ends Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher, crouched into his stance and immediately drew a double team. While Johnson said he lacked stamina, he finished the game with three tackles (including the sack), a quarterback hurry and raves from his new teammates. "He's going to help us out in the passing game more than people believe," says defensive end Greg Ellis.

"We've accepted him, he's fit in, and I don't see how it would be otherwise," says Canty. "Everybody makes mistakes. It's what you do after those mistakes that's the big point."

Johnson played down any talk of redemption. "It's not about me personally -- that's over and done with," he said. "It's about this team, the Cowboys, and what we're doing together. I'm old news."

With the spotlight poised on Johnson's comeback and Romo's new lucre, the Cowboy most accustomed to serving as the team's lightning rod -- Owens -- has drifted into the unexpected role of costar. Though he drew league fines after mocking New England coach Bill Belichick's illegal spying in a touchdown celebration in Week 2 and for waving a personalized towel on the sideline against Philadelphia in Week 9, Owens has been downright placid compared with past seasons. "[My mother] thinks something's wrong with me because I'm not really reacting to a whole lot," he says.

Against the Giants, Owens passed up chances to gloat after his two scores, instead racing to the sideline to celebrate with his teammates. The player who did sit-ups in his driveway on his way out of Philadelphia and wore a bicycle helmet in training camp with the Cowboys a year ago settled for a body bump with receiver Sam Hurd and an abridged Soulja Boy dance.

"Some things I've said have been blown out of proportion, and it becomes something my teammates have to answer to leading up to a game," Owens said last week. "I'm trying to eliminate that. I'm just trying to bring a sense of focus, knowing that the team we have is special. We had the ability to do it last year, and it didn't happen. This year the stats speak for themselves."

The Cowboys were giddy after passing the test the Giants presented -- a road foe that had two weeks to prepare thanks to a bye. If respect flows between these teams, it is hard to find among such open hostility. Canty fired a salvo four days before the game, saying of the Giants, "They don't like us, we don't like them, there's no in-between, there's no confusion." Added Dallas receiver Patrick Crayton on Sunday night, "When you're scared of another team, you have to talk yourself up. I think we were on their minds a little bit." Said Phillips, "Our team did its talking on the field. I'm proud of that."

While more than one Giant wondered aloud if the teams might meet again in the playoffs, the Cowboys now look to loftier goals. With home games against the Redskins and the Jets before the showdown with Green Bay, Dallas is well-positioned to earn the NFC's top spot. The Cowboys have a new nosetackle who is fresh for the stretch run, a star receiver suddenly treasuring the understated and a quarterback with $30 million in guaranteed money who's still playing as if he's ruling a sandlot. "The challenge for us is, can we handle it," Romo said on Sunday night. "I'm not into the statement games. I'm into winning football games and getting into position for the real fun stuff in January and February."

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