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The last time the Dallas Cowboys won 13 games in a regular season, they won the first of three Super Bowl titles during a dominating stretch in the 1990s.
This year’s Cowboys show signs of having similar potential.
A week after clinching the division, Dallas looks to take the next step and guarantee a first-round playoff bye when it hosts the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
The Cowboys (12-1) come in having won seven straight since suffering their only loss of the season to New England on Oct. 14. Dallas rallied to win 28-27 last Sunday against the Detroit Lions to capture the NFC East title for the first time since 1998.
Tony Romo was 35-of-44 for 302 yards and two touchdowns, recording his seventh 300-yard effort of the season. The Cowboys scored 14 points in the final quarter, completing the comeback on Romo’s 16-yard TD pass to Jason Witten with 18 seconds left in the game.
“We still have more to accomplish. It’s a stepping stone of what we’ve wanted to do from the start of the season,” linebacker Akin Ayodele said. “For us, we can cross out one of our goals, and we can move on to the next.”
The Cowboys are now setting their sights on wrapping up a first-round bye with a win or a Seattle loss at Carolina on Sunday. They also could guarantee themselves home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs with a win and a Green Bay loss at St. Louis.
“As soon as we got those (NFC East champion) hats, (coach Wade Phillips) was saying home field, and there’s so much more,” Witten said.
Witten and the Cowboys realize just making the playoffs won’t be good enough for one of the best teams in franchise history. Only the 1992 Dallas team with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin won 13 games in a regular season. That team went on to win the Super Bowl, the first of three it won over a four-year stretch.
Terrell Owens said the Cowboys’ rise to prominence this year didn’t surprise him.
“I had a feeling this season was going to be very special,” he said. “Knowing that we had a new coach and they added me to the guys on this team and the talent of the guys on this team.”
Sunday will be the fourth time Owens will face the Eagles (5-8) since his acrimonious exit from Philadelphia at the end of the 2005 season. Owens had 10 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown in Dallas’ 38-17 win over the Eagles on Nov. 4 in Philadelphia.
“I know there are things I probably could’ve done differently,” he said when asked if he had any regrets about his time with the Eagles. “Overall, I’m content with where I am. I honestly know that everything that was reported when I got suspended there wasn’t true. Everything happens for a reason. I feel like I got the better end of the deal.”
It’s hard to disagree with his assessment. While Owens and the Cowboys go into this weekend making plans for the postseason, the Eagles have already essentially been eliminated from the playoffs after dropping their third straight last Sunday in a 16-13 loss to the New York Giants. Even the return of Donovan McNabb couldn’t spark the Eagles.
McNabb, who is expected to start again on Sunday, was sidelined for the two previous games with a sprained right ankle.
With McNabb under center, the Eagles are 5-6, but the offense has struggled, averaging just 19.9 points per game. Coach Andy Reid remained steadfast that McNabb will remain the team’s quarterback over backup A.J. Feeley or second-round draft pick Kevin Kolb.
“It’s not all Donovan. Everybody has a little piece of the pie on this thing,” Reid said.
McNabb was 20-of-40 for 179 yards and one touchdown last weekend. He was sacked three times, but set up a possible game-tying drive, guiding the Eagles 50 yards in the final minute. David Akers’ 57-yard field-goal attempt hit the right upright to end the comeback attempt, however.
Although his future with Philadelphia is in doubt, McNabb refuses to concede the season yet. After facing Dallas, the Eagles visit the Saints and host the Bills to end the year.
“I think the motivation is winning these final three games and seeing where it puts us,” said McNabb, who has lost three of his last four starts against Dallas. “I don’t think there’s really any added motivation because we’re playing the Cowboys … Our motivation has to be that we have to win this game and the next games to come to put ourselves in a better position to make the playoffs.”
While the Eagles haven’t found a consistent answer at quarterback, Brian Westbrook continues to have another outstanding season at running back. Westbrook has rushed for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns on 236 carries. He is 107 yards shy of tying the career high he set last year and is a rushing touchdown away from setting another career best.
The Eagles have won five of their last seven visits to Dallas, including a 23-7 win on Dec. 25, 2006.