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Snap Judgments

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as I watch the Patriots make Steelers second-year safety Anthony "I guarantee it'' Smith eat his poorly chosen and hardly prophetic words ...

• This was just the start for the Cowboys. Their first NFC East title since 1998 has been secured, and while it didn't come easily against the Lions on Sunday in Detroit, that merely confirms to me that Dallas is the only thing close to a dominant team in the NFC.

The way I have it, if the Cowboys can play as badly as they did against the Lions and still win, they're obviously much, much better than their opponents in the NFC. Looking ripe for the upset all day long, Dallas executed a very New England-like escape against the Lions. Detroit could have put that game away seven different ways, but the bottom line is the Cowboys hung around long enough to make a little fourth-quarter magic, scoring 14 points in the final 15 minutes to squeak out a 28-27 win.

Dallas has owned the second half all season, and that to me is a sign of a team that occasionally toys with its opponents, before turning up the intensity when crunch time arrives. And from the looks of it, just as he did at Buffalo earlier this season, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo knows where his team's on-off switch is located.

The 12-1 Cowboys won't play a team the rest of the regular season who should give them a game. Dallas has Philly (5-8) next week at Texas Stadium, and then it travels to Carolina (5-8) and Washington (6-7) to close out the schedule. That's three losing teams between now and when the Cowboys open the playoffs at home in the divisional round -- most likely as the NFC's top seed.

I know what I expect to see in Glendale, Ariz., eight weeks from now: The greatest matchup of winning machines in Super Bowl history. That would be a New England team that enters 18-0 in its quest for perfection, against a Dallas squad that's 17-1, with its only loss in Week 6 to those very same Patriots. Two teams with a combined 35-1 record, and a .972 winning percentage.

How much fun would that be? They hype alone would be historic. Brady vs. Romo. Owens vs. Moss. Armageddon, indeed.

• Geez, that was a nice little season Jason Witten turned in Sunday in Detroit. The Cowboys tight end had a career best of 15 catches and 138 yards, with his longest catch being his most critical: A 16-yard touchdown grab with 18 seconds left, giving the Cowboys their winning points.

Of Romo's 35 completions against the Lions, a whopping 27 of them went to non-wide receivers. Witten had his 15, but running back Marion Barber chipped in with 10 receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown on a nifty 8-yard swing pass in the second quarter. It was one of three scores for Barber, the hardest runner in the NFL.

• Do not underestimate the potential significance of San Diego's comeback win in overtime at Tennessee. Down 17-3 in the fourth quarter, with quarterback Philip Rivers playing on a sore left knee, Shawne Merriman knocked out of the game, and the heat once again resting none-too-lightly on Norv Turner's shoulders, the Chargers refused to fold.

The way San Diego won has to help its confidence as it approaches the playoffs, and even better news, the Chargers are again getting the ball into their play-makers hands when it matters most. LaDainian Tomlinson scored both in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and Antonio Gates' two-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds remaining in regulation forced the extra period.

The Chargers have won three in a row and seven of nine, but maybe even more tellingly, they've won two in a row on the road after starting the season 1-4 away from Qualcomm Stadium.

• That wasn't exactly a triumphant return to Nashville for ex-Titans backup Billy Volek. The Chargers backup quarterback relieved Rivers when he left the game early in the second quarter with a sore left knee.

Volek threw an incompletion on the only snap of his first drive. He threw an interception on the only snap of his second drive. On his third possession, he was sacked by Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and his fourth drive was a one-play kneel-down at the end of the first half.

• It's official now. The Lions are 6-7 and can't possibly hit the 10-win plateau that quarterback Jon Kitna predicted in the preseason. When Detroit was 6-2 at midseason, Kitna looked headed for savant status.

• The Lions can pin their fifth consecutive loss on the play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Never one to take his foot off the gas, that Martz. Even as he's driving over a cliff.

• I'm not sure all the king's horses and all the king's men can ever put the pieces back together for Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia. Some things just can't be fixed, and the more I watch No. 5, the more I think the best thing that could happen to him is a fresh start in a different color jersey in 2008.

If you're an Eagles fan, how are you feeling these days knowing that Jeff Garcia will be leading the Bucs into the playoffs next month, while McNabb and Philly sit out the postseason?

• Smart move, Packers. With Brett Favre hurting, Green Bay only asked No. 4 to throw 23 passes, instead handing off to running back Ryan Grant 29 times. Grant responded hugely, with 156 yards rushing and a six-yard touchdown.

As for Favre, he didn't fare too badly either, throwing for 266 yards on just 15 completions, including a pair of touchdowns. And the streak rolls on.

• People who continue to think that 0-13 Miami has a win coming somewhere need to wake up and smell the coffee. It's just not happening, folks. The Dolphins for a couple weeks now have run up the acqua, orange and white flag, and on top of that, they're going to get the best efforts of their last three opponents -- the Ravens, Patriots and Bengals -- because nobody wants to be the team that loses to these guys.

• Hey, is it crazy to suggest that Sage Rosenfels has played as well as Matt Schaub this season in Houston? Rosenfels notched another win starting in place of the injured Schaub at home against division-leading Tampa Bay, and he at least has given the Texans decision-makers something to think about in the future.

• The Pro Bowl teams get announced this week, and here are two new names who should be on the rosters if there's any one paying attention this season: Antonio Cromartie and Trent Cole. Cromartie, the Chargers second-year cornerback, picked off his team record- tying ninth pass on Sunday at Tennessee, and don't forget that three of those came against the Colts' Peyton Manning in Week 10. As for Cole, the Eagles underrated third-year defensive end sacked the Giants' Eli Manning twice on Sunday, giving Cole a team-high 11 on the season.

• Speaking of the Pro Bowl, Fred Taylor is putting on a great late-season push to end his streak of being the NFL's best player to never earn an invitation to Honolulu. Taylor had 132 yards on 18 carries in a rout of Carolina, including an 80-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run that was the longest scoring rush in the NFL this season.

In his last five games, against the likes of Tennessee, San Diego, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Carolina, Taylor has run for 470 yards and three touchdowns. The Jaguars are 4-1 in that span, losing only at the Colts.

• Not only did the Raiders get spanked 38-7 at Green Bay, but also head coach Lane Kiffin didn't even get to continue his plan of getting JaMarcus Russell some limited playing time. Russell was declared inactive on Sunday by Oakland, meaning Andrew Walter had to back up starter Josh McCown.

Brock Berlin started for the Rams at Cincinnati, becoming the third St. Louis starting quarterback this season. Chris Redman on Monday night will become the third Falcons quarterback this season. That makes it five teams that have gone with at least three starting passers this season: Carolina, Miami, and Minnesota are the others.

And no, it's not a coincidence that four of those five are losing teams.

• Caught a bit of Pat Summerall doing some pinch hit play-by-play from the Rams-Bengals game for Fox, with Brian Baldinger handling the color duties.

Pat Summerall. Calling a meaningless Rams-Bengals game in Week 14. Kind of sad. I remember when the very sound of Summerall's voice told you it was a big game.

• Towing a banner in its wake, a small plane circled Gillette Stadium in the pre-game hours before the Steelers-Patriots. The banner read:

Bonds: 756*Belichick: 3 Super Bowl Wins*

Best I could tell, Don Shula wasn't piloting the plane. But who knows, the Hall of Famer might have paid for it.

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