Philadelphia, PA – Tony Romo has played as well as any quarterback in the NFL over the past seven weeks, putting a flawed Dallas Cowboys team in position to win the NFC East if it can pull off an upset of Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
Fair or not, the latest renewal of the storied Cowboys-Redskins rivalry also will serve as a legacy game for Romo, one where 416 yards passing and two late touchdown drives like he pulled off last week against New Orleans will mean little if Dallas is on the wrong side of the scoreboard again.
In fact, the only metric which will matter in Landover Sunday night will be the check mark next to the win or loss column.
Let's face it, there is something about playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. It's akin to being the center fielder for the New York Yankees, the point guard of the Boston Celtics or the first-line center of the Montreal Canadiens.
The America's Team stuff might be a bit overblown these days but the Cowboys remain the marquee team in the NFL and for whatever reason people expect Romo to fail.
Despite all the numbers he's put up since taking over in north Texas, Romo's never been regarded as a "money" quarterback.
The facts show otherwise, of course.
Romo is 55-37 as the 'Boys starter and he ended the franchise's 14-year postseason drought with a 34-14 win in a divisional round playoff game versus Philadelphia back on Jan. 9. 2010.
"He makes a ton of plays," Dallas coach Jason Garrett, a former quarterback himself, said when talking about his current signal-caller. "He's done a great job with the football. His decision-making, his care of the football has been very good."
Romo has thrown more touchdowns for the Cowboys than Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Don Meredith or Danny White, and his 18 come-from-behind wins are a franchise best. Heck, Romo has the best career fourth quarter passer rating of any active quarterback.
"Sometimes, you call plays as a quarterback in the fourth quarter and you just know what teams like to do, what they try to do against you," Romo said when asked about his play in the final frame. "You gain that understanding. It's been very beneficial for us."
But, that's never the narrative since Romo has never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy or even come close for that matter.
And some of the franchise's most high-profile losses in recent years lead directly to Romo, none more so than the wild card playoff loss to Seattle in 2007 when he botched the hold on a 19-yard gimmee field goal attempt which would have sealed the victory for his team.
A year later Romo was unable to lead the Cowboys back from a 21-17 deficit during the team's divisional playoff game against the New York Giants when he misfired on a deep pass in the final minute, one which was eventually picked off by R.W. McQuarters.
And there is always his three fumble performance against a strong Minnesota team in the 2010 postseason in what turned out to be a 34-3 drubbing by the Vikings.
A more nuanced observer might point out that Dallas typically goes farther than it should since Jerry Jones is not exactly regarded as one of the NFL's best when it comes to personnel, and the arrogant owner of the Cowboys is never going to hand that aspect of his organization over, at least fully, to a true football guy.
This season the Cowboys have no running game to speak of and the guts of a good defense on paper has been decimated by injuries. Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains on the sidelines with a groin injury and star inside linebacker Sean Lee is on injured reserve with a toe injury. Bruce Carter, another inside 'backer who was really coming on, is also out with an elbow problem.
Despite all that the Cowboys are still in the mix and Jason Witten has already broken Tony Gonzalez's NFL record for receptions by a tight end with 103, while the enigmatic Dez Bryant has turned into a superstar outside the numbers, hauling in 88 balls for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns with a game to go.
The straw that stirs the drink in that high-octane passing game is obviously Romo.
To most NFL people, Romo will remain a very good quarterback whether he wins or loses on Sunday.
To the casual observer and the average emotional Cowboys fan, however, he can change how he's perceived.
Win and you're in -- a defining moment for any NFL quarterback.
"It's about winning and losing," Romo said. "You do everything in your power to help your football team do the things that it takes to win. When you don't, you'll use the experience to do better, but when you lose in the NFL, especially when you play this position, it's just a very empty feeling."
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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern)
Tampa Bay (6-9) at Atlanta (13-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 4
THE SKINNY: The road to the Super Bowl on the NFC side will go through Dixie after the Falcons invaded the Motor City last Saturday and really showed the difference between winning and losing organizations, topping an underachieving Lions team content with celebrating Calvin Johnson's greatness. A Tampa club in the midst of an ugly five-game losing streak will likely be the latest speed bump in Atlanta's brilliant season.
PREDICTION: Falcons 33, Buccaneers 17
Houston (12-3) at Indianapolis (10-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 7
THE SKINNY: Both teams are in the postseason with the Texans having clinched the AFC South and the Colts securing a wild card berth after topping Kansas City in Week 16. Despite losing to Minnesota last Sunday Houston will secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win or if Denver and New England both lose. Problem is the Texans have never won in Indy.
PREDICTION: Texans 23, Colts 17
Chicago (9-6) at Detroit (4-11), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bears by 3
THE SKINNY: The Bears remain in the mix for a playoff berth but Chicago can only advance to the postseason with a win on Sunday combined with a Minnesota loss.
"All we can do is control what we can control," said Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has set team records with 113 catches and 1,466 yards. "We do need help. If we could get that help, that would be good."
PREDICTION: Bears 20, Lions 17
Philadelphia (4-11) at New York Giants (8-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Giants by 7 1/2
THE SKINNY: The defending Super Bowl champion Giants can still qualify for the postseason but will also need plenty of help to get in. New York needs a win against Philadelphia and losses by Dallas, Minnesota and Chicago. The Eagles, meanwhile, will return to Michael Vick (rookie quarterback Nick Foles is out with a broken hand) in what could be Andy Reid's finale as Philadelphia's coach.
PREDICTION: Giants 24, Eagles 20
NY Jets (6-9) at Buffalo (5-10), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bills by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: Buffalo is 0-5 against Rex Ryan and the Jets in three seasons and has lost by an average score of 36-17 in those games, including a 48-28 setback in the season opener. Things figure to be a little easier this time around with Greg McElroy in for the Jets and Mark Sanchez and Tim Me-bow out.
PREDICTION: Bills 24, Jets 17
Baltimore (10-5) at Cincinnati (9-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 3
THE SKINNY: The Ravens clinched their second-consecutive AFC North Division title last week while Cincinnati wrapped up a wild card berth for a second- straight time. Baltimore is the only NFL team to earn a playoff slot in each of the last five seasons (2008-12), and still has eyes on the No. 3 seed if it can get a win and the Patriots lose to the visiting Dolphins.
PREDICTION: Bengals 21, Ravens 20
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (7-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 4 1/2
THE SKINNY: Sunday's meeting between the Saints and Panthers will not have any consequence in the postseason race but it will pit two clubs who have been playing their best football of late. New Orleans got off to an 0-4 start, but has gone 7-4 since while Carolina started its season 1-6 before rebounding.
PREDICTION: Saints 31, Panthers 27
Cleveland (5-10) at Pittsburgh (7-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: No Line
THE SKINNY: Browns coach Pat Shurmur could be coaching his final game in Cleveland here and has a big QB problem. Rookie Brandon Weeden didn't practice Wednesday because of the sprained right shoulder he suffered in last Sunday's loss at Denver and Weeden's backup, Colt McCoy, also missed the session with a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh, of course, is uncharacteristically out of the playoff hunt and attempting to avoid a rare sweep at the hands of the Browns.
PREDICTION: Steelers 24, Browns 10
Jacksonville (2-13) at Tennessee (5-10), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Titans by 4
THE SKINNY: The Titans will be looking to avoid the ignominy of losing twice to a three-win team when they host the Jags. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Jaguars prevailed 24-19 as Chad Henne passed for 261 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns, and Jacksonville intercepted two Jake Locker passes late in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.
PREDICTION: Titans 17, Jags 14
Oakland (4-11) at San Diego (6-9), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Chargers by 7
THE SKINNY: Norv Turner's likely farewell to San Diego could feature the completion of a season sweep of the lowly Raiders, who will be without quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer suffered cracked ribs and a bruised lung during last Sunday's 17-6 loss to Carolina and has been shut down leaving Matt Leinart and Terrelle Pryor as Dennis Allen's options.
PREDICTION: Chargers 24, Raiders 7
Green Bay (11-4) at Minnesota (9-6), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Packers by 3
THE SKINNY: Green Bay has clinched the NFC North and is in line for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. The Packers will lock up the bye with a win or losses by both San Francisco and Seattle. The Vikings, meanwhile, are in control for a playoff spot. With a victory, Minnesota will advance to the postseason as a wild card.
PREDICTION: Vikings 21, Packers 17
Arizona (5-10) at San Francisco (10-4-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 16 1/2
THE SKINNY: The 49ers, who have already secured a playoff berth, currently lead the NFC West and can clinch the division with a victory or a Seattle loss. San Francisco can also notch a first-round bye with a win over Arizona and a Green Bay loss.
PREDICTION: 49ers 24, Cardinals 14
St. Louis (7-7-1) at Seattle (10-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 10 1/2
THE SKINNY: Seattle, which is 7-0 at home, has clinched a playoff berth but is still in contention for the NFC West division title. The Seahawks can claim the division with a victory and a San Francisco loss. Meanwhile, if Seattle wins and both San Francisco and Green Bay lose, the Seahawks will clinch the NFC West and secure a first-round bye.
"It's been coming together for us," said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. "We're getting better and you can just feel it and see it. It's coming to life for us."
PREDICTION: Seahawks 31, Rams 17
Miami (7-8) at New England (11-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 10 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Patriots have won the AFC East and are battling for a first- round bye and home-field advantage. New England will gain the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win and losses by Houston and Denver. The Patriots can also garner a first-round bye if they win on Sunday and either Houston or Denver loses.
PREDICTION: Patriots 30, Dolphins 17
Kansas City (2-13) at Denver (12-3), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 16
THE SKINNY: Denver has won the AFC West and is currently deadlocked with Houston for the best record in the AFC. The Broncos are in control for a first-round bye and will earn it with a victory or a New England loss. If Denver wins and Houston loses, the Broncos will clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"Our goal is just to keep winning," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "That's what we've done. We've won all 10 as a team. That's all that matters."
PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Chiefs 10
Dallas (8-7) at Washington (9-6), Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Redskins by 3
THE SKINNY: The NFC East title will be on the line on Sunday night in primetime.
The victor of the Dallas-Washington matchup will win the division title and move into the playoffs.
"It will be pandemonium at FedExField," said Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall. "The way you like it. It's definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere. We want to be the only show on TV. That's a good feeling. Primetime, baby."
The Cowboys can only advance to the postseason as the NFC East champion. The Redskins can get in as either a division winner or wild card.
"We've got to move forward," said Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. "We have an opportunity to go to the playoffs. Regardless, we've got to go play the Redskins, play them tough and see where it falls."
PREDICTION: Redskins 24, Cowboys 20