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(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND – The play that changed everything about this NFL season had occurred hours before and miles away.
Tom Brady's reported torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee had taken the league MVP from the Patriots, the league's standard bearer and title favorite. While the thoughts of the Dallas Cowboys were initially about a fallen fellow player, there was also an acknowledgement that the competitive balance had shifted.
It gives the Cowboys, impressively dominant in defeating Cleveland 28-10 on Sunday, potentially one less road block to a season where it's Super Bowl or bust.
"Tom Brady is the reigning MVP and that's for a reason," linebacker Brady James said. "I'm sure he'll be missed on that team. One thing about (New England) is they have enough talent and experience to rise up."
Actually, they probably don't. As good as the supporting cast is in New England, it was Brady who made it work. The Patriots held on to beat Kansas City but the long-term prognosis is completely altered. The ugly truth of the injury is the road to the championship has become easier for every contender.
None of those Super Bowl dreamers, however, have the star wattage of the Cowboys, who despite not winning a playoff game in 11 seasons are clearly good enough to win three or four this season.
The manhandling of what was supposed to be a contender in Cleveland was proof enough. The Cowboys did whatever they wanted here Sunday. They threw (320 yards). They ran (167). They played big on big downs (8-for-11 on third). They stuffed a good Browns offense (just 205 total yards).
"Pretty complete game for us overall," coach Wade Phillips said. "I just think we were clicking on all cylinders."
It was just one game. It's a long season. Next week's opponent, Philadelphia, looked equally impressive. You have to continue to get better. Don't get ahead of things.
Blah, blah, blah.
The Cowboys are in it to win it and they can hardly contain that optimism behind respectable football talk. A team loaded with stars unveiled two new ones Sunday – rookie Felix Jones scored on his first run and will secure the ground game with Marion Barber. Wideout Patrick Crayton (six catches for 82 yards) made a number of acrobatic grabs to solidify himself as not just Owens' running mate but a major threat in his own right.
"Defenses can't just schematically just try to take me out of the game," said T.O., who had a touchdown.
Tom Brady has his leg buckled by Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, bottom, during the first quarter.
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Defenses aren't going to do much schematically on any part of this offense. And if the Cowboys' defense is this stout, neither will opposing offenses.
"We know if every unit does its job we can be a dominant team," James said. "We have the talent to do it. We have the personnel to do it, now we just have to put it together. Now it is just putting it all together."
Everyone looked at the Cowboys' roster and expected a soap opera. From Owens to Romo, from Pacman to Jessica, this had the look of a powder keg of personalities. Thus far it's nothing but tranquility, everyone loving each other and playing together. If that's how it will be, there goes one more hurdle.
"We're on the right track," Owens said.
No team in the league has this many gamebreakers and this few obvious weaknesses. At least now that Brady is out in New England.
For all the hype about the Cowboys, New England was always looming. The Patriots do that to everyone. They are the immoveable object – beatable, yes, but only with an incredible performance.
Now, they are just another team. Good, but not feared. And as if it was possible, the expectations increased for the Cowboys.
"That team has nothing to do with our team," James said. "I'm not worrying about them. We're not playing them, yet. We don't have them on the schedule. So we've got to take care of the people we have."
Dallas has everything you want to win the title; everything except that champion's heart that seemingly was always on display in New England.
The Patriots are reeling though. Their leader is out. The NFL is looking for a new favorite. All eyes on Dallas, where even the Cowboys acknowledge the glare should come to rest.
There's one less excuse for a championship for a team that didn't have many in the first place.