TAMPA, Fla. — Owner Jerry Jones didn’t guarantee an NFC East title in the jubilant and giddy Dallas Cowboys locker room following the 31-15 blowout victory Saturday night of Tampa Bay.
But one year after a 6-10 finish in a season in which he predicted a Super Bowl run, Jones said it would be a career disappointment if the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs this season.
Jones said quarterback Tony Romo is healthy and playing too well to waste it on a season in which the Cowboys are sitting at home in the postseason.
Romo, who has answered his December critics with superb play the past three weeks, put on a clinic in the first half before 65,162 mostly silver-and-blue-clad Cowboys fans at Raymond James Stadium.
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Romo threw three touchdowns to three receivers and ran for a score in building a 28-0 halftime lead before coasting the rest of the way as the Cowboys ended a two-game losing streak.
Romo completed 23 of 30 passes for 249 yards in the game with no turnovers and a quarterback rating of 133.9.
“He is playing well,” Jones said of Romo, who has nine touchdowns and no interceptions in the past three weeks despite a career 8-12 record in December. “This time last year he wasn’t playing. With him playing at the level he is playing, it would be a real serious career disappointment for us not to get to the playoffs. We’ve got to get the wins. We’ve got to get in. Best way to do it is win this thing.”
To win this thing, meaning the NFC East title, the Cowboys need to win their final two games. The division matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles on Christmas Eve and at the Giants on New Year’s Day in the season finale are true must-win matchups, assuming the Giants continue to take care of business.
The Cowboys (8-6) have a half-game lead on the Giants (7-6), who play the Washington Redskins today.
The Cowboys would win the NFC East with wins in the final two games.
But if a team ever needed an easy, confidence-building blowout heading into the final stretch it was this Cowboys team, reeling from two straight losses at the final gun, and the news that former teammate Sam Hurd had been arrested on federal drug charges.
“It was a good win,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I thought we played well in all three phases on our football team. We played well in the first half and we managed the second half really well. Again I thought we played with a purpose and a lot of good things happened. It was a good win for our team.”
The Cowboys played well because Romo was hot from the outset, buying time with his feet to throw two 8-yard touchdown passes, to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, in the first quarter and 9 yards to Laurent Robinson before scoring his first rushing touchdown of the season on a quarterback sneak to close the first half.
Romo was supported by 108 yards rushing from Felix Jones, his second straight game over 100 yards in place of the injured DeMarco Murray.
The team’s maligned defense, which was criticized widely for giving up two touchdowns in the final 6 minutes to help blow a 34-22 lead to the Giants in a 37-34 loss last week, got into the act with a strong first-half effort, allowing only one first down and 58 total yards.
The Buccaneers (4-10), who have lost eight consecutive games, totaled just seven first downs.And even though they scored on a fumble return in the third quarter to show some signs of life, there was no chance of a comeback despite the Cowboys blowing five fourth-quarter leads earlier in the season including twice in the previous two weeks.
The Cowboys were even able to rest linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff in the final two quarters to nurse injuries.
“The defense played well throughout the game,” Garrett said. “In the second half, we were playing the clock as much as anything else.”
Now the Cowboys face two teams they haven’t beaten this season. The Eagles won 34-7 in October to go along with the Giants victory last week.
Tampa Bay has been outscored 69-0 from the second quarter of last week’s loss to the Jaguars through the first half of Saturday’s game.
It was nothing more than a warm-up game for the Cowboys.
"We really needed to get back on track and this was an important game," Romo said. "The playoffs have started for us and that’s the way we approached it. We just have to go forward."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.