Cowboys Ride High; Tougher Hombres Loom

Just in case you thought the gap between the New England Patriots and the rest of the NFL had closed to two car lengths, think again. After what happened here Thursday evening at Texas Stadium the Patriots' place atop the league's food chain is as secure as gold ingots at Fort Knox.

It would be nice to report that the Dallas Cowboys' 37-27 win against the Green Bay Packers has a greater cosmic meaning than just clinching a playoff spot and probable homefield advantage throughout the postseason. But it doesn't. The 11-1 Cowboys are the class of the NFC which, compared to the unbeaten Patriots, is like saying Britney Spears is the class of rocker parents. The Cowboys won fair and square and they won decisively. Their best-ever 11-1 start is no small thing. In fact, it's a very big thing. In the NFC.

But the Cowboys still aren't the Patriots. The undefeated Patriots of the more muscular AFC remain the best team in the league. The Cowboys are No. 2, but the gap between first and second is significant. Significant doesn't mean insurmountable, though.

Slowly and steadily the Cowboys are proving to be a team you'd rather not see on your schedule. They won't terrify you the way the Patriots will, but it isn't a stretch to mention the combo of Tony Romo and Terrell Owens in the same paragraph with New England's football royalty, Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

Romo only needed 19 completions to finish with 309 yards and four touchdowns -- five, if Owens doesn't bumble away a sure score in the end zone early in the fourth quarter. But that was about it for Owens mistakes. He had seven catches for 156 yards and one touchdown. He celebrated his 14th score of the season by pouring a mini-bucket of popcorn through his facemask. A Siskel & Ebert tribute? You never know with TO.

What we do know is that the Cowboys are getting better, even dominant during bits and pieces of a game. But if the Patriots and the Cowboys played tomorrow, New England would win. The difference is it wouldn't win by 21 points, like it did Oct. 14 at Texas Stadium. That might not sound like progress, but remember we're just entering December. The Cowboys are thinking Super Bowl XLII, which means they have two more months for a growth spurt.

"I don't know that we're playing better than anybody else, but we are playing as well as we've played all year long," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was fighting a cold. "And that's the way that you dream of it being as we go into these type of ballgames."

Romo now has 33 touchdowns, easily breaking the franchise record for passing TDs in a season. Owens has his 14 scores and is setting a franchise record for smiles. And Coach Wade Phillips apparently leads the league in fan adulation.

"Great job," said a Romo jersey-wearing fan who somehow snuck into the postgame media conference. "Great job."

"What is this?" said Phillips, smiling at the fan. "Did I put my own shill in this?"

Phillips can laugh at it all because the Cowboys just won three games in 12 days and will be favored during the rest of their regular season schedule (at Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, at Carolina Panthers, at Washington Redskins). But he's smart enough to understand the Cowboys aren't anywhere close to a perfect team.

"I think we can get better," he said.

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