Break out any of a number of clichés, and chances are they apply to the Cowboys' less-than-subtle banishing Saturday night of the Philadelphia Eagles from this year's playoffs.
The teams are longtime division rivals, and battled right down to the last weekend of the regular season for the NFC East title, but to suggest they were anywhere near equal in back-to-back Dallas routs would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth. In sending Donovan McNabb and company to the golf course, the Cowboys got the monkey off their backs. Tony Romo showed he can win a late-season game. Dallas proved that a great defense is the best offense, at least at this time of year. Wade Phillips is capable of leading his team to a postseason win.
The drought of playoff victories, which stretched on for more than a decade is over. But when they faced the media after Saturday night's victory, Phillips and Romo weren't prepared to answer questions about next week's opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, both saying they were going to celebrate their win over the Eagles for a night. After a run of postseason mediocrity rivaled only by the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions, they deserved a chance to exhale.
Celebration time is now officially over, because as good as the Cowboys looked against Philadelphia — and the game wasn't even as close as the score suggested — they will need to play even better next week.
Minnesota presents the 'Boys with a number of challenges:
• The Metrodome: It's one thing to play in front of 80,000 fans when they're supportive. But it's another thing entirely to go inside a dome stadium that holds in noise as well as it holds 63,000 loud Viking fans … and rest assured, they are loud in the Twin Cities. Their live Viking mascot rides into the stadium on a motorcycle, and touchdowns are followed by the blowing of that gigantic Alpine horn. Dallas left tackle Flozell Adams has a well-documented hearing deficiency; how hard will it be to block Minnesota Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen and not commit false starts when it's nearly impossible to hear the snap count?
• New defensive strategy: Against Philadelphia, the Dallas pass rush looked like a track team as it blazed through the Eagles' patchwork offensive line. Injuries had decimated a once-solid Philly line, and with the absence that even resembled a running game, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the Dallas D were able to chase McNabb all night. Even when they didn't sack McNabb, they pressured him constantly, forcing him to run for his life and cough up poor throws. Brian Westbrook played — barely — but was a shell of the multi-talented back who had tortured Dallas defenses in years past, and without him at full speed, the Eagles had nothing to make the Cowboys' pass rushers back off and respect the run (Philly mustered just 56 rushing yards on 13 carries).
The Vikings, on the other hand, have Adrian Peterson, the former Oklahoma star who is headed back to the Pro Bowl and has shown he can run on virtually any defense in the league. Teams that stack the line with extra big bodies are susceptible to Peterson slipping through the line and reeling off long runs with his breakaway speed. Those who bring in extra defensive speed often see their defenders planted by the bruising Peterson (314 carries, 1,383 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns). As if he didn't present enough problems for defenses before, he more than doubled his receptions total from last year, hauling in 43 passes this season after collecting 21 catches a year ago. Dallas will have to generate a pass rush, but can not be anywhere near as one-dimensional on defense and get away with it.
• Brett Favre: It's not like McNabb was a green rookie quarterback Saturday who had never faced a solid defense or performed in the playoffs. But in Favre, the Viking offense is run by the most grizzled veteran passer in the league, a man who has seen every situation a game can present. After his "should I stay or should I go?" act of the last two offseasons, Favre has shown his critics that he still has his cannon of a passing arm, and has seemed reinvigorated by joining the Vikings. His presence and confidence and talent has made Peterson a receiving threat, turned wideout Sidney Rice into a star (like Dallas's Miles Austin, Rice is an alternate on this year's Pro Bowl roster), made a viable threat out of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (56 catches, 566 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns) and helped rookie receiver Percy Harvin win the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Too bad Favre is too old to compete anymore, right?
• Hunger: Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams has a chance to become this week's Flozell Adams. Saturday's victory over the Eagles gave Adams the first postseason victory of his (YEAR)-career. Williams, in his 13th (CHECK) season, has a chance for his first this weekend.
• Running game: Speaking of Williams, he and fellow defensive tackle Kevin Williams combine for more than their listed combined weight of 628 pounds of immovable beef inside to anchor a stingy Minnesota run defense (the 87.1 yards per game the Vikings allowed in the regular season were the second-lowest total in the NFL). Dallas running backs Marion Barber (early on), Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, who strolled through the Eagles' "olé" run defense as if on a red carpet, likely will find running room far more scarce against the Vikings. Defensive end Jared Allen often is miscast as just a pass-rushing specialist, when in fact he is extremely sturdy against the run, and is among the most balanced players in the league at his position.
• Energy level: Dallas is the healthiest team in the league. Going into Saturday's win over the Eagles, the Cowboys had nobody on their injured reserve list, and welcomed back right tackle Marc Colombo after missing seven games because of a leg injury. Barber spent much of the night on the sideline — reportedly for a sprained knee, but it might well have been due just as much to how well Jones and Choice were running.
But while the score was lopsided, the effect of back-to-back wars against a division rival can not be discounted. The Vikings are not without injuries — starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, one of the keys to their defense this year, is done for the year after suffering a gruesome broken leg Dec. 6 against the Arizona Cardinals — but they should be ready and rested.
So balance all of this against the fact that Dallas is playing as well — or better — than any team in the NFL right now, and expect a close game that either team could win. Each team is talented enough that if the other has an off-game, it could find itself on the short end of a lopsided exit from the postseason.
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