Friday November 30th, 2007

With the big showdown over, the NFC standings this morning say the 11-1 Cowboys lead the 10-2 Packers in the race for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by what amounts to two games with four remaining to play in the regular season.

But it feels like a lot more than that, and if Brett Favre really is too hurt to play much in the coming weeks -- and that's a thought so foreign as to be almost incomprehensible -- then the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC is undoubtedly over. In favor of Dallas, the team that Favre just can't beat. No matter which decade we're talking about.

But first things first: Favre is apparently really hurt this time. His starting streak, which stands at 269 games including the playoffs, might be in jeopardy. He's got a banged-up throwing elbow and a separated left shoulder, injuries that occurred on the same play in the second quarter -- his last of the game, which Dallas eventually won 37-27.

After the game, Favre tried gamely to sound optimistic about his latest physical challenge. But there was clearly uncertainty in his voice, and it's probably safe to say in his mind. His luck continues in that Green Bay doesn't play again for another 10 days -- Dec. 9 at home against Oakland -- but the double whammy of a bad elbow and a bad shoulder might be difficult for even the NFL's Mr. Indestructible to overcome in so short a span. He is 38, after all. Maybe his body won't heal quite as quickly this time.

"I think it's going to be fine, but it's pretty swollen right now,'' said Favre of his throwing elbow, which he hit on the helmet of Cowboys reserve cornerback Nathan Jones. "I couldn't go back in the game. Believe me, I wanted to. We have four days before we start back up a normal week. I envision being fine. I hope I am.''

As well as Packers backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in relief against Dallas -- 18 of 26 for 201 yards passing and a touchdown -- Green Bay's hopes are tied to Favre's health, and right now that's a question mark. We know the pecking order in the NFC now, and it's Dallas at No. 1 and Green Bay No. 2.

The Cowboys, who became the first NFC team to clinch a playoff berth with the win over the Packers, just earned their third victory in a 12-day span, and in the process reversed a trend that had seen them lose at least their last three biggest home games, dating to last year: against New Orleans and Philadelphia in December 2006 and against New England in Week 6 of this season.

It was high time that Dallas gave one of its best performances in a big-stage setting. The Cowboys didn't look unbeatable by any stretch against Green Bay; but with only the season's final quarter of the season to go, they are the team to beat in the NFC.

"This win doesn't put us in the Super Bowl, and a loss here wouldn't have knocked us out,'' Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "Obviously, does it help our chances? Let's say we had a 50 percent chance of going to the Super Bowl. Maybe now it's up to 52 percent because may be we get to play a home game against this team, if we see them again.

"But I don't think that this does anything else except say, 'You know what? We're a pretty good football team that's playing pretty good football right now.' Do we still have a lot of improving to do? Yeah. Do we have the ability to get better? I believe so. So we're going to keep trucking along and hopefully put some more wins together and go into the playoffs on a winning streak and see what we can do.''

What the Cowboys did against the Packers was impressive at times and concerning at others. Dallas scored on its first five possessions of the first half, rolling to a 27-10 lead just five minutes into the second quarter. Green Bay rallied strongly late in the first half and throughout the third quarter, but a 10-point Dallas fourth quarter was enough to put the game away.

Despite the Cowboys defense giving up 27 points and 357 yards of offense to the Packers, the big picture in Dallas is bright. The NFC is there for the taking. The Cowboys can beat you with their productive passing game, their tough running game, or a pass-rush heavy defense that harassed both Favre and Rodgers (three total sacks but a heck of a lot of pressures and QB hits) and picked off Favre twice.

"This was two 10-1 teams, you know,'' Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said. "Somebody had to win. Somebody had to step forward. We stepped forward. But that doesn't ensure anything, and we know that. It was a big game, an important game, and we said that all along.''

Earlier this season, the Cowboys allowed their home game against New England (both teams entered 5-0) to be framed as a statement game on where their program was at. Then they went out and largely fell flat against the powerful Patriots, losing 48-27 in an ugly reality check that exposed their shaky secondary.

But that game -- Super Bowl preview or not -- had nowhere near the potential impact as this week's showdown with Green Bay. The Packers game was far more important to the Cowboys' season, because with a win they could all but assure themselves of not having to play at Green Bay's frosty Lambeau Field in the NFC title game in January. Now, that's motivation!

"I think the numbers are there, and we all know how to calculate homefield advantage,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Winning a game against a team like this, right now, starting the last quarter of the season, that's the most meaningful thing. Our arrow is pointed up. We're playing at a higher level in my mind than we were two or three weeks ago. This was a tremendous opportunity for us. This was an opportunity for us to measure up against a team we all have a lot of respect for.''

Another reason the NFC race looks over this morning: The Cowboys have the hottest quarterback in the game this side of Tom Brady. The wunderkind Romo threw four more touchdowns Thursday night, and his only interception should have gone for a fifth score, but Terrell Owens bobbled it away to Packers cornerback Al Harris in the end zone. As Romo goes, so go these Cowboys, and Romo is red hot. Romo threw for 309 yards and those four touchdowns, giving him a team-record 33 this season, breaking Danny White's 1983 mark.

"I don't know if he's the next American Idol, but he played really well and answered the bell,'' Phillips said. "I just can't say enough about our quarterback.''

The Cowboys said what they needed to say Thursday night on the field. Their caution with their postgame comments was both prudent and based on recent history. Dallas has faded in December in recent seasons, and last year's late-year slide remains fresh.

"We knew the magnitude of the game tonight,'' said Owens, who tacked on another seven catches for 156 yards, with his team-record 14th touchdown catch of the season. "We put ourselves into position for the playoffs with this one. We're excited about where we're at. We're in the driver's seat. Now we've just got to stay there.''

This time, they will. The Cowboys are rolling. Favre is hurt. After Thursday night, the NFC is all but won.

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