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Original Issue

Class Of the Field

Three impressive victories, including a decisive defeat of the Packers at Lambeau, have confirmed the Cowboys as the NFL's elite team and the NFC as the league's new power conference

THE FATHER and son walked into the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field just before midnight, slapping backs and cracking wise. This is the weekly postgame ritual for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his oldest child, Stephen, two Arkansas alums charged with keeping Dallas the envy of the NFL. From recruiting free agents to building a $1 billion stadium, the Joneses—Jerry, 65, is the general manager, Stephen, 44, the director of player personnel—enjoy mixing the business of football with the pleasures of fandom, and they prefer heaping portions of both.

Sometimes they can't even wait until the end. After the Cowboys took a 13--6 halftime lead over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Stephen walked out of his suite, a cellphone glued to his ear. "Did you watch Felix [Jones] run?" he asked, reliving his rookie back's 60-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. "O.K., put Mom on."

And when the Cowboys had punched out Green Bay 27--16, it was Jerry's turn to poke out his chest in the boisterous Dallas locker room. "I'll give anybody a loan who bet against the Cowboys," he said.

Jerry's bravado on Sunday night stood in sharp contrast to his demeanor last January, when the wild-card New York Giants humbled his Cowboys at home 21--17 in the NFC divisional playoffs. Even after Dallas broke training camp this summer, Jones says he didn't know what kind of team he had. He got some clues in the light fog at Lambeau—from his punishing defense and disciplined special teams, from his game-breaking pass-catchers and running backs, and from a quarterback raised a couple of hours south of Green Bay, in Burlington, Wis.

"That's not the same Tony Romo that came to the NFL trying to make all the plays out there when they weren't there," Jerry said. "That's not him anymore. Now he gives us every chance to win."

Romo and the Cowboys are trying to succeed where the New York Yankees failed: by closing out the final season in their venerable stadium with a world championship. But before they plan a trip to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII, they must navigate a newly ascendant conference marked by high-scoring offenses and stingy, suffocating defenses. For most of the decade the AFC has been home to the league's elite teams. But this season, with the Patriots, Colts and Chargers barely recognizable—and such sexy 2008 picks as the Browns and the Jaguars below .500—the power has shifted to the NFC. That means four more months of tough going. "We sort of beat up on each other so much that it makes it hard to get a clear-cut team out of the NFC," says Dallas safety Ken Hamlin. Adds Romo, "When you're in this conference, you're just trying to get out of it alive."

If Sunday's tilt between Dallas and Green Bay was not necessarily a preview of the NFC Championship Game, it did match 2--0 teams that narrowly missed out on a shot at a Super Bowl championship last season, each at the hands of the Giants. Packers wideout Donald Driver still grumbles about the Packers' failure to close the deal at home in the NFC title game. "You know the saying about having a house full of people, and if you don't get in there and eat, the food will be gone?" Driver says. "Well, we left some food on that table last year. We have to make sure that the next time, we clean the table, wash the dishes and put everything away."

The hype and hyperbole were thick before kickoff, not least because Brett Favre's shadow loomed over the game. Romo spent much of the week explaining how he is the rare Wisconsin native who has never owned a Packers number 4 jersey. He attended just one Green Bay game as a teenager, and that in the preseason. Yes, Romo liked Favre's Packers growing up, but he dug John Elway's Broncos and Joe Montana's 49ers too. "And I was always a Chicago Bulls fan," he says. "Michael Jordan."

When asked about making his first start in his home state, Romo noted that Sunday was actually his second game at Lambeau. "We played there in 2004," he said. "I was the holder." Romo left a more lasting impression this time, bouncing back from a first-quarter interception to finish with 17 completions in 30 attempts for 260 yards, including a picture-perfect 52-yard touchdown to emerging speedster Miles Austin midway through the fourth quarter to ice the game. When Romo wasn't finding receivers—he hit seven different targets—the offensive line was punching holes for the fearless Marion Barber, the fourth-year back who has emerged as one of the game's best, and the flashy Felix Jones, the 22nd pick, from Jerry and Stephen's alma mater.

"When you have a good line and a good quarterback, it makes everyone better," says Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. "You feel like you have a lot of weapons. The best thing about it is, you don't know which one is coming."

THAT THE Cowboys are undefeated through three games with Terrell Owens catching only 10 passes speaks to Dallas's depth. That Owens is still smiling speaks to his maturity and suggests how close a Super Bowl title could be. In the off-season he hit the beaches in Mexico and Miami as part of his workout regimen, running sprints and pass routes in the sand, visualizing the football thumping into his palms.

At 34 and in his 13th season, Owens is as proud of his physique as ever. He conducts interviews in front of his locker, where a copy of his new book, T.O.'s Finding Fitness, with a smiling, shirtless Owens on the cover, is perched like a best seller at Barnes & Noble. Any discussion with Owens can veer into strange territory. On moving ahead of Cris Carter on the alltime touchdown receptions list (132), behind only Jerry Rice: "There are always comparisons between Randy [Moss] and me, but in my heart Jerry is always going to be Number 1 until he's dethroned."

Did he ever catch bricks like Rice did growing up? "Never caught any bricks," he said. "I ran from some bricks, but never caught any."

How does he take care of his hands? "I get manicures and pedicures," he said. "I think that's just good hygiene. For some people, that's a guy being metro."

Despite catching just two passes for 17 yards against the Packers, Owens put his body and hands to good use. On Romo's first-quarter pick in the end zone, Owens was blocked to the ground near the goal line but still chased down safety Nick Collins to halt his runback after 61 yards. On Jones's touchdown run, Owens helped spring the running back, throwing two blocks and sprinting alongside Jones to the end zone.

For one night, at least, Owens was content to be a decoy. "When you have somebody of my caliber, you try to throw the book at them," Owens says. "You try different coverages, and if that doesn't work, you try different personnel. If that doesn't work, you try three or four [defenders], and when that happens you see the results. On any given series we can bust out with a big play. Everybody is a viable option."

Perhaps most impressive about the Cowboys' win was that it came on a short week following a taxing game against an NFC East rival. After beating the Philadelphia Eagles 41--37 in a shootout at home on the preceding Monday night, Dallas showed it could win a slugfest on the road against another NFC power. "If you can come back [from that] and show improvement, that's what's important," said linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who had a sack and three hurries against Rodgers. "It's getting pressure on the quarterback and not giving up big plays."

The Cowboys are clearly the class of the early season, but they know that what ultimately matters is where they stand when the weather turns cold. "I hope we're mentally tougher so that when we play in big games we understand the challenges you have to overcome," Witten says. "Nothing is more [of an example] than the Giants. You beat them twice, and then they come here [and win in the playoffs]. You hope you learn from it. We won't know until we get in that situation."

ROMO ISN'T looking ahead to the playoffs yet. To him the season is about improving week to week "as a quarterback, as an offense and as a team." But given the Cowboys' 3--0 start (including two impressive road wins) and the high expectations that accompany America's Team, it will be hard to forestall talk of the postseason. Says Calvin Hill, the former Dallas running back and now a Cowboys consultant, "If fame is a microscope, Dallas Cowboys fame is an electron microscope."

The Joneses wouldn't have it any other way. Dallas's 2008 season has been dubbed the Farewell, as the Cowboys prepare to move from 37-year-old Texas Stadium to the 2.3-million-square-foot, 100,000-seat palace in Arlington next September. For all its luxurious appointments, you can bet that Jerry, Stephen and the rest of the Cowboys will feel even happier about their new home if the latest Lombardi Trophy is there for the christening.

"We feel like we have a lot of weapons," says Witten, "and the best thing about it is you don't know WHICH ONE IS COMING."



Where do the Cowboys and the Packers stand in the NFL power structure? Check out Dr. Z's rankings to find out.



Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer

ANY WHICH WAY Romo (left) is finding a wealth of targets, including Austin (above, 19), the unlikely hero against the Pack.


Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer

[See caption above]


Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer

CUTTING EDGE Barber ran for 142 yards against Green Bay, much of it on ferocious thrusts through the middle of the line.



CENTER STAGE Austin contributed two clutch catches while his high-profile teammate T.O. was content to play decoy.



STARBURST Dynamic young talents such as Jones (28) and Ware (below) give the Cowboys a chance to be a long-term force.


Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer

[See caption above]