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Original Issue

Breaking Away

Behind their go-for-broke quarterback and two high-profile reclamation projects, the Cowboys overpowered the Giants to gain separation in the NFC East. Looming ahead: a showdown with the Packers for conference supremacy

WITH A diamondstar pinned to the left lapel of his blue suit, Jerry Jones was waiting in thebreezeway of Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon when the door to the visitors'locker room swung open. In small clusters the Dallas Cowboys filed past himtoward the field'Terrell Owens, the mercurial receiver on his third NFLmarriage; Wade Phillips, the quiet coach from the league's recycling bin; TonyRomo, the newly minted $67 million quarterback of obscure origin. When theteam's new nosetackle, Tank Johnson, appeared in the door, Jones approached hislatest reclamation project and offered some perspective on the set-to he wasabout to face. "Well, here we are," the owner told Johnson. "NewYork Giants, Dallas Cowboys. We're a little distance from four or five weeksago." That's when the Cowboys were reeling from a painful loss to thePatriots and Johnson, who signed with Dallas on Sept. 18, had just begunpracticing with the team.

Three hourslater, after Romo had tossed four touchdown passes, Owens had caught two andJohnson had stuffed Eli Manning for a fourth-quarter sack in a 31--20 victory,the Cowboys showed just how far ahead they are in the NFC East and, maybe, inthe entire conference. The victory raised their record to 8--1, gave them atwo-game lead (plus the tiebreaker) over the Giants, kept Dallas undefeated onthe road and set up a potential showdown for home field advantage against the8--1 Packers in Dallas on Nov. 29.

The win alsosignaled that the Cowboys have recovered from their 48--27 loss to NewEngland'and that they might offer a stiffer test should the two meet again inArizona in February. "This is why I felt Jerry brought me here," saidOwens, who finished with six catches for 125 yards, his third consecutive gamewith at least 100 yards receiving. "I want to be the playmaker for thisteam."

Amid pushing,shoving and plenty of jawing, the Cowboys handled a team that was eager for arematch after a 45--35 loss in Dallas in Week 1. If it's an NFL axiom that alldivision games are created equal, the Giants seemed to understand that thissecond meeting was more equal than others. At stake was a share of first placeand the lengthening of a six-game winning streak, which began when New Yorkmade a goal line stand against the Redskins in Week 3 to avoid falling to 0--3.The Giants' first-year defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, had in recentweeks hatched a pass-rushing scheme so potent that his defensive ends started apool among themselves based on such stats as sacks and forced fumbles. TheGiants chose to wear their seldom-used red jerseys, one more indication thatthey viewed the matchup with Dallas as extra special. "They arebeautiful," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said of the uniforms. "Theylook real good when you see a swarm of red."

The scarlet swarmnever materialized. The Cowboys' offensive line mostly held at bay a Giants'rush that had sacked Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a phenomenal 12 times inWeek 4. Romo was sacked only twice. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 247 yards,finding Owens in favorable matchups and capitalizing with quick strikes. WithOwens lined up one-on-one against cornerback Sam Madison down the rightsideline in the third quarter, Romo delivered a 25-yard strike that broke a17--17 tie. T.O.'s second touchdown came with 10:58 remaining in the game, whenhe sped down the middle of the field, motored past safety Gibril Wilson andhauled in a 50-yard pass.

At that point,many of the 78,964 fans rose from their seats and headed for the New JerseyTurnpike. By leaving, they missed Johnson's first sack as a Cowboy, when hespun past guard Chris Snee to take down a helpless Manning. "They're 1--3in those jerseys," said Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett after the game."They need to throw them away."

AFTER THEIR 2006season ended with Romo's fumble of a field-goal snap in the wild-card gameagainst Seattle--followed by coach Bill Parcells's departure two weekslater--the Cowboys are off to their best start since 1995, their last SuperBowl championship season. "I couldn't have thought we'd be 8--1," Jonessays. "Romo has exceeded what I thought he would be, and our offensive linehas advanced beyond what I'd hoped. I think this team will have more ability todo things people haven't seen before as we go into the playoffs."

Perhaps borrowingfrom the philosophy of the Patriots (who in recent years added perceivedproblem players Corey Dillon and Randy Moss), Jones signed Johnson to atwo-year deal despite Johnson's host of legal woes. In November 2005 he wassentenced to probation in Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor guncharge. In December '06 police found unlicensed firearms in his suburbanChicago house, and he was jailed for two months for violating probation; healso served a concurrent 45 days on another misdemeanor gun charge. NFLcommissioner Roger Goodell suspended Johnson for eight games, and the ChicagoBears cut him in June after a highly publicized traffic stop in Arizona, eventhough he was neither booked nor charged in the incident.

Jones, who'dgambled on players with troubled pasts before, consulted with many peoplearound the league on Johnson, including Goodell. "Roger thought he deserveda second opportunity," says Jones, who needed a defensive tackle afterstarter Jason Ferguson went down for the season with a torn biceps in Week 1.The owner also spoke with his quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson, who'd been onthe Bears' staff for the three years that Johnson was in Chicago, where, at6'3" and 300 pounds, he made a name as a run stuffer who could slip in foran occasional sack. "Wade said he was a good teammate," Jones says."With a change of environment or different circumstances, he can be who hewas, talentwise."

Johnson enteredthe game on the Giants' second possession, slapped low fives with defensiveends Chris Canty and Jason Hatcher, crouched into his stance and immediatelydrew a double team. While Johnson said he lacked stamina, he finished the gamewith three tackles (including the sack), a quarterback hurry and raves from hisnew teammates. "He's going to help us out in the passing game more thanpeople believe," says defensive end Greg Ellis.

"We'veaccepted him, he's fit in, and I don't see how it would be otherwise," saysCanty. "Everybody makes mistakes. It's what you do after those mistakesthat's the big point."

Johnson playeddown any talk of redemption. "It's not about me personally'that's over anddone with," he said. "It's about this team, the Cowboys, and what we'redoing together. I'm old news."

WITH THEspotlight poised on Johnson's comeback and Romo's new lucre, the Cowboy mostaccustomed to serving as the team's lightning rod'Owens'has drifted into theunexpected role of costar. Though he drew league fines after mocking NewEngland coach Bill Belichick's illegal spying in a touchdown celebration inWeek 2 and for waving a personalized towel on the sideline against Philadelphiain Week 9, Owens has been downright placid compared with past seasons. "[Mymother] thinks something's wrong with me because I'm not really reacting to awhole lot," he says.

Against theGiants, Owens passed up chances to gloat after his two scores, instead racingto the sideline to celebrate with his teammates. The player who did sit-ups inhis driveway on his way out of Philadelphia and wore a bicycle helmet intraining camp with the Cowboys a year ago settled for a body bump with receiverSam Hurd and an abridged Soulja Boy dance.

"Some thingsI've said have been blown out of proportion, and it becomes something myteammates have to answer to leading up to a game," Owens said last week."I'm trying to eliminate that. I'm just trying to bring a sense of focus,knowing that the team we have is special. We had the ability to do it lastyear, and it didn't happen. This year the stats SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES."

The Cowboys weregiddy after passing the test the Giants presented'a road foe that had two weeksto prepare thanks to a bye. If respect flows between these teams, it is hard tofind among such open hostility. Canty fired a salvo four days before the game,saying of the Giants, "They don't like us, we don't like them, there's noin-between, there's no confusion." Added Dallas receiver Patrick Crayton onSunday night, "When you're scared of another team, you have to talkyourself up. I think we were on their minds a little bit." Said Phillips,"Our team did its talking on the field. I'm proud of that."

While more thanone Giant wondered aloud if the teams might meet again in the playoffs, theCowboys now look to loftier goals. With home games against the Redskins and theJets before the showdown with Green Bay, Dallas is well-positioned to earn theNFC's top spot. The Cowboys have a new nosetackle who is fresh for the stretchrun, a star receiver suddenly treasuring the understated and a quarterback with$30 million in guaranteed money who's still playing as if he's ruling asandlot. "The challenge for us is, can we handle it," Romo said onSunday night. "I'm not into the statement games. I'm into winning footballgames and getting into position for the real fun stuff in January andFebruary."

"I'm just trying to bring a sense of focus,"says Owens (inset). "This year the stats speak for themselves."


Photograph by Al Tielemans

RED OR NOT The scarlet-clad Giants had planned to put relentless pressure on Romo, but it was the Cowboys' quarterback who kept New York off-balance on this first-quarter touchdown pass.



TANK'S A MILLION Johnson made an immediate impact for the D-line, sacking Manning in his first game as a Cowboy.



POINTS TAKEN T.O. tops the NFC in receiving yards, and his eight TDs are tied for the lead.