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Spagnola: New School Cowboys Reshaping Their Image By Running The NFC East

ARLINGTON, Texas – These swashbuckling 2014 Dallas Cowboys chopping through a jungle of can't(s), one perception at a time.

         Can't win in December? The Cowboys now 3-0 this final month of the year.

         Can't win at home, failing to establish a home-field advantage? Go ask 91,899 rockin' The AT&T Sunday afternoon about that one, the Cowboys ending a three-game slide at AT&T Stadium.

         Can't win a big one? The Cowboys on a three-game winning streak, each of these last three games having been labeled big, bigger and biggest?

         Can't shake 8-8? The Cowboys now 11-4, with an opportunity in the final game of the season to post their best record since 2007 and match their second-best mark since 1993-95.

         Can't ever win with this general manager, this head coach, this quarterback? CBS analyst Phil Simms may be apologizing for those predicting dire straits for the Cowboys this season, especially after getting pounded 28-17 by San Francisco in the season opener, saying during Sunday afternoon's broadcast, "It was unanimous across the board with everybody in the media that the Cowboys, not only would they lose this year, but be one of the worst teams in the National Football League."

         Before halftime!

         Let me give you Cowboys 42, Colts 7, as screaming evidence.

         Cowboys 11-4, currently tied for the third-best record in the NFL, and top record in the NFC.

         Cowboys NFC East Division Champions, emblazoned for nearly 90 minutes on the gigantic video board after Sunday night's NFC East title-clinching game at AT&T Stadium.

         Cowboys Run The NFC East stenciled onto blue T-shirts the players proudly were wearing following the mauling of the AFC South champion Colts, now 10-5, and probably second-guessing just how good they really are.

         Cowboys return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, just the fifth time since the turn of the century (15 seasons), ha, poking a finger in the sides of all those ridiculing them for placing the physical playoff ticket in their season ticket-holder packages back in the summer that could be activated if … for postseason expediency sake. No expedited mailings needed now.

         Talk about a cathartic Sunday.

         "This team works as hard as any team that I've ever been associated with in football or in anything else," Cowboys beleaguered owner Jerry Jones said. "They've gotten what they deserve. Now, fans have finally gotten what they deserve, and that is a shot at the big prize. It's a testimony to the staff and certainly to Jason (Garrett).

         "But it's a real testimony to the leadership. This really is a great example. Our team had so much to play for and so much to be motivated, and it showed."

         But you knew that didn't you heading into this game after going on the road to defeat Chicago and Philadelphia, latching onto a one-game lead in the NFC East with two to play. You knew that after Saturday's early Christmas present came wrapped with a huge bow, the struggling Redskins sideswiping the Eagles, 27-24, setting up the Cowboys' chance to clinch the East on a tee.

         Instead of all these people tiptoeing into The AT&T on Sunday with this sense of oh-no apprehension, as developed over the previous three seasons when the Cowboys failed to win the final, winner-takes-the-East game, stumbling to 8-8 each time, there was this sense of anticipation in the air as everyone was making their way to the game from near and far. From The Valley, from Corpus, from East Texas, a bunch telling me there was no way they were going to miss this one.

         Hopefully they got into their seats by the National Anthem. By halftime, 28-0 Cowboys, this one was over. Cheers! Have another.

         Think about this: If anyone should tell you the Cowboys haven't beaten anyone, just say 11-4 Seattle on the road, now 9-6 Philadelphia on the road, 10-5 Colts at home and 8-7 Houston at home. Too bad Tony Romo wasn't available for the Arizona (11-4) game.

         If anyone wants to disparage this defense, fine, but make sure to point out that the Cowboys have scored 41, 38 and 42 points in the past three games – here let me, that's 121 – and that now in nine of the 11 victories they have put up at least Thirtysomething, their 15-game average now up to 28.2 a game. And oh, go figure, and I know X.Y.Z. Hilton wasn't available, but the Cowboys did hold the league's third-ranked offense intent on muscling up to run the ball to a whole one yard rushing – one! – as well as the No. 1 passing offense to 128 yards through three quarters while piling up a 35-0 lead.

         But also remember that this is a start. Nowhere near a satisfactory finish.

         "I think for all of us, after the game, there were a few minutes there where it was pretty emotional. To get to here, it's a heckuva accomplishment for our team," said veteran Jason Witten, one of only two guys on the team (Romo the other) who has been on all five Cowboys playoff teams this century. "Enjoy it, but as Jason (Garrett) said, 'This is just one step in the goal of what we want to achieve.'

         "We've got ourselves in position and now we have to capitalize."

         So we'll see, but confidence can be a dangerous energy drink. Goodness abounds.

         Who is going to tell you someone has done a better coaching job this season than Garrett? Can you say Coach of the Year?

         Who is going to tell you there is a quarterback in the NFL playing better than Tony Romo? By the way, he now ranks No. 1 in passer rating (114.4), higher than Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; No. 1 in completion percentage (70.3 percent); No. 1 in yards-per-attempt (8.49) and No. 1 in touchdown percentage (8.0), having thrown 32 of them with one game to go.

And there were those minimizing him before the season began as a mere "bus driver." Yeah, right, drive this. Can you say MVP?

         Who is going to tell you there is a better receiver in the NFL? Dez Bryant is now leading the league with 14 touchdown receptions, one short of the Cowboys' franchise high (Terrell Owens, 15). Can you say Pro Bowl?

         Who is going to tell you there is a better running back in the league? DeMarco Murray is set to be the NFL's rushing king now with 1,745 yards, just 29 short of breaking Emmitt Smith's single-season club record of 1,773 yards he predicted two weeks ago would definitely fall, and he was smiling when he said that. Can you say, as Dez did, "Co-MVP"?

         Can you say there is a saltier, more productive, down in and down out tight end in the league than Jason Witten? He has put up a season-high seven catches in each of the past two games, all total 60, only the second NFL tight end to ever post 11 consecutive 60-catch and 600-yard seasons.

         Can you find me another team's second receiver with the eight touchdown catches Terrance Williams has? And I could only find three times in club history the considered second receiver at the time had as many as eight scoring receptions, never more.

         And this offensive line? Please.

         So hey, take a break, enjoy the week, knowing the last-game anxiety has been eliminated, along with a bundle of perceptions.

         These are not your 2013 Cowboys, nor any of the previous four teams. Got it?

         New School? Well, we'll see, and if you think your stomachs have churned during the previous three regular-season games, as the Cowboys were grinding their way to the top of the NFC East heap, wait, you'll see … or remember. But for now …

         Have yourselves a Merry Christmas.

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