-- ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo was getting sucked into the vortex of a wild and crazy game, and wouldn't you know it, a couple of guys on the other team were the ones who royally screwed up. These weren't just any guys on any opposing team, either. These were the New York Giants of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, the only NFC East coach and quarterback to win the Super Bowl over the last 20 years.
Coughlin and Manning won their first of two titles after the 2007 season, taking advantage of Romo's folly along the way. The Dallas Cowboys were 13-3 and the top seed after their quarterback rang up the most touchdown passes he's ever thrown in a season, 36. To celebrate the occasion, one year after Romo's fumbled snap on a chip-shot field goal cost the Cowboys a playoff game with Seattle and sent a devastated Bill Parcells into retirement, Romo had spent the bye week in Cabo with Jessica Simpson.
He was too clueless to get it. Here was an undrafted kid out of Eastern Illinois holding down the coolest job in America -- quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys -- and he did something no self-respecting franchise player would've even considered doing before a playoff game. Of course Romo got outplayed by Manning in the wake of his fun in the sun, and of course Troy Aikman, three-time champ, later ripped him for being such a fool.
But that was then, and Sunday night was Sunday night. As much as some fans on both sides of the Giants-Cowboys divide were probably expecting the Dallas quarterback to invent some newfangled way to throw a pick-six in the closing minutes, Romo isn't that Romo anymore. He is 35 years old now. He is a good kind of scarred. He is mature enough to know how to act when potential Hall of Famers like Coughlin and Manning completely lose their minds.
While holding a 23-20 lead, Dallas all out of timeouts, the Giants could've killed off 35 or 40 crucial seconds by running the ball on third down at the 1-yard line and settling for the field goal, making it nearly impossible for the Cowboys to go the distance for a winning touchdown. Instead, Coughlin and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo had Manning threw a pass that never had a chance.
The play was dumber than Jeremy Mincey's personal foul, and Coughlin and Manning would shred themselves in postgame news conferences before any columnist could do the deed. But when he got the ball at his own 28 with 1:29 left, Romo wasn't worrying about the blame game that would be played on the losing side.
He was worrying about covering those 72 yards without DeMarco Murray to bail him out in the flat and without Dez Bryant to do some Dez Bryant things down the field.
Murray was in Atlanta with his new team, the Eagles, and Bryant and his broken foot already had a date with a surgeon's blade. Meanwhile, up on the giant AT&T Stadium video board, a fan was shown holding up a sign that said, "THIS IS OUR YEAR TONY ROMO."
No, this probably isn't going to be the Cowboys' year to win their first title in two decades. But that doesn't mean this can't be the that Tony Romo proves once and for all that he'll go down as a special player even if he never wins a Super Bowl ring.
Either way, the fourth quarter was a hell of a place for Romo to start making his case. He punctuated a six-play, 76-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten, and then needed only a half-dozen plays again to win the game on his 11-yarder to Witten with seven seconds to go, pinning the goat horns on the visiting coach and quarterback who have won the championships Romo has not.
The snap on that deciding play had a "this is your life" element to it, too. Romo blew that perfect postseason snap against Seattle in his first year as a starter, and given that Parcells thought his Cowboys were positioned to make a Super Bowl run, the coach never recovered from it. The quarterback? He recovered from it. Romo didn't panic when the shotgun snap from Travis Frederick came in low. He simply picked up the ball, lifted his eyes and found his oversized friend at the goal line.
"You've just got to stay calm," Romo explained. "At that moment, at that point in the game, you can't just fall on it and protect the football. There's not much time left, and you've got to have poise in that situation when random things happen. Someone misses a block, ball is on the ground, whatever it is that comes up, you find through the years if you play long enough that the experiences you've had you can just get calm, get back up, trust your guys around you to do their job and then go through the progression."
As Romo spoke at his news conference, he was surrounded by photos of Aikman and of Roger Staubach and of the championship Cowboys at the White House. He knows the deal. A golf lover who has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open, Romo knows he's the NFL's BPWAM -- Best Player Without A Major. He knows if he doesn't win at least one green jacket, people are never going to let him forget it.
Maybe that's why he predicted a championship season in April while accepting a Lifetime Achievement award from the Nancy Lieberman Foundation. Maybe Romo sees no reason to run from the fact that he only has two playoff victories to his name, that he's never even reached the NFC title game, and that fans don't want to hear about his series of back surgeries or the absences of Murray and, for the next four to six weeks, Bryant.
Maybe Romo embraces the burden his own employer has planted on his shoulder pads. Jerry Jones was going on about his quarterback's competitive spirit Sunday night, but on his weekly radio show last week the Cowboys owner encouraged listeners to keep alive the questions about Romo's postseason performances until he does "something bigger than he's done."
Yes, life in the NFL is much easier when you have a couple of parades behind you. Giants general manager Jerry Reese told ESPN.com that he met with Manning on Friday, after he agreed to terms on his $84 million extension, and reminded him the team's three-year postseason drought had grown old. "It's time for us to get back to the playoffs," Reese told Manning, "and I expect you to carry us there."
Manning didn't carry the Giants anywhere Sunday night, other to an 0-1 record. But he is a made man, a two-time MVP of the biggest game in sports, and the consequence of failure can only hurt so much.
Romo might never get to where Manning's been. But in watching him play, and in listening to him talk, it's clear he has grown up. Romo completed 36 of 45 passes for 356 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants, and then explained how he's learned over the years to remain calm amid the fourth-quarter chaos.
"We caught a break," the winning quarterback said of the Coughlin-Manning breakdown, "and ended up taking advantage of it."
Tony Romo has grown into a special player, and he didn't need a ticker-tape parade to make it official.