By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Before the game we get Kelly Clarkson. At halftime it's Carrie Underwood. And if the Dallas Cowboys are interested in a female mascot for Thursday's annual Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium, they should reach out to Anna Nicole Smith.
Too imbalanced to fully embrace yet too tempting to totally dismiss, the Cowboys and Smith have become one in the fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling same.
Mapping Dallas' season has proven as difficult as predicting the buxom blonde's family-trauma lows, drug-induced highs and dramatic weight fluctuations in between. And at the end of the day, both are still counting on an old man to make them happy.
"If we keep playing like this, we've got a chance to do something," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells says at Valley Ranch Monday afternoon. "This thing's a long way from being over. But you gotta be living in a closet not to know it's important now."
At this very second the Cowboys look damn good, but only after countless alterations. And, admit it, they're just a busted stitch here or a willpower relapse there from again appearing real hideous real fast. In witnessing this weird season, would it totally shock you if—on the heels of beating the Indianapolis Colts and with Clarkson, Underwood and a turkey-stuffed national television audience watching—Dallas up and loses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, thereby rerouting, yet again, the Super Bowl into the toilet bowl?
Why? Because these Cowboys lead the NFL not in Xs and Os, but extremes. At times entertaining and others exasperating—often within the same play—Dallas has spent the season's first 10 games oscillating between super and stupor. You may not be shocked by their 6-4 record, but don't tell me you're not surprised by their circuitous route.
Predictable? What if I yanked you aside during a training camp practice back in July and told you that entering Thanksgiving: ·•· ·First-round draft pick Bobby Carpenter would have as many tackles (three) as running back Julius Jones.
• Kicker Mike Vanderjagt would have five missed field goals, three off the right upright.
• Receiver Terrell Owens would not be among the NFL's top 14 in catches or receiving yards.
• Backup running back Marion Barber III would lead the NFC with nine rushing touchdowns.
• The Cowboys would upset the undefeated Colts despite throwing no passes to a healthy T.O. in their last 34 offensive snaps.
• Quarterback Tony Romo would elevate his team to 6-4 with nifty feet, gutsy throws and a post-game pat on the helmet of Peyton Manning as if to say "Hang in there, kid." Most amazing, the Cowboys have thrust themselves, at least momentarily, back to credibility and NFC playoff contention without Owens and despite Vanderjagt.
"I've been a part of a Super Bowl team that was built by winning a game against a top opponent like this," owner Jerry Jones gushes after the 21-14 victory over the Colts. "This is that kind of win."
"That was a big win for us. I told the team this ought to tell them something about what they are capable of doing," Parcells says after his biggest triumph in Dallas since a victory over the Carolina Panthers on November 23, 2003, gave the Cowboys eight victories and prompted him to bellow, "You can't call them losers anymore."
For the Cowboys' roller-coaster ride to end on a high, they need two more wacky occurrences: Romo must continue doing what he's never done. And Vanderjagt must cease doing what he's never done.
Sure Dallas was as lucky as it was good against the Colts. DeMarcus Ware could've—should've—been flagged for illegal contact on Indy's last offensive play near the goal line. And instead of a facemask penalty against Marion Barber, the Cowboys got help in running out the clock via a 15-yarder called instead on Indy's Marlin Jackson. Above it all, their undrafted, free-agent quarterback was again spectacularly steady.
At this point there's no denying what the Cowboys have: Romomentum.
"I don't know if surprised is the right word," Parcells says of his quarterback. "Remember, he's not a rookie player. He was just an inexperienced game player. At this point a lot of people are going to start saying I shoulda made the switch sooner. But I did it when I thought it was time."
In one of the most shocking outcomes of the season, Romo outplayed Manning. He connected on 19 of 23 passes, 10 of 11 in the second half. Most impressive, when the Cowboys needed to kill the clock they trusted Romo to put the ball in the air. And he responded with a roll-out floater to rookie tight end Anthony Fasano, then a game-clinching dart to Terry Glenn.
"This is one you look back on and say it was special," Romo says. "But this isn't our goal. Our goals are much higher."
While Romo is one blocked field goal in Washington from being 4-0 as a starter, Vanderjagt may be one missed kick from unemployment.
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