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STEVE DESHAZO: C’mon, say it: How ’bout those Cowboys?!!

THEY WERE 3–5 at midseason, with their coach on the hot seat. They’ve been mediocre for years, thanks largely to a headstrong owner. Two months ago, virtually no one gave them a shot at making the playoffs.

But thanks to a record-setting offensive performer and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that has shrugged off key injuries, they’ve shown remarkable resiliency. And they can win the NFC East title with a victory tonight.

But they’ll have to beat the Washington Redskins to do it.

If Dallas-loathing wasn’t so ingrained in Redskins fans, they might appreciate just how far the Cowboys have come entering tonight’s division title showdown at FedEx Field. After all, the teams are not so different.

Granted, Dallas’ 5–2 record since midseason doesn’t quite measure up to Washington’s six-game win streak. But consider that the Cowboys have won four games by five points or fewer since Halloween—and trailed in each of them.

And if its Thanksgiving Day game against the Redskins had lasted 63 minutes instead of 60, Dallas might have overcome a 28–3 deficit to win that one, too.

I know, I know. You’re much more likely to hear Rush Limbaugh praise the President than to get a Redskins fan to give the Cowboys even grudging credit.

But blind loyalty aside, Dallas has enjoyed a second-half renaissance that isn’t quite as impressive as Washington’s—but it’s not far behind.

You shouldn’t approve of Dez Bryant’s immature off-field antics, but it’s hard not to appreciate the way he’s grown up on it. Michael Irvin is the only Cowboys receiver with more receiving yards in a season than Bryant’s 1,311. And 283 of those yards (plus three of his 13 touchdown catches) have come in two games since he broke a pinky finger against Cincinnati on Dec. 9, an injury that was supposed to end his season.

Speaking of boo-boos, the Cowboys have four linebackers on the injured reserve list—including Sean Lee, who was their leading tackler before suffering turf toe in late October.

Losing Lee and starting defensive end Kenyon Coleman is as significant to the Cowboys as the absence of Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker was to the Redskins. Still, both defenses have not only survived, but improved.

And Tony Romo may be the most ridiculed player in the NFL (non-Tebow division). Only four quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than his 16, which is why Dallas has the NFC’s third-worst turnover margin (minus-10).

Still, Romo has led the Cowboys to 108 fourth-quarter points in their last seven games and is on pace to pass for 5,000 yards. He brought Dallas from behind to beat Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and made up a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against New Orleans last week before losing in overtime.

In the Thanksgiving Day matchup, the Redskins needed a nearly 5-minute fourth-quarter drive to keep the ball out of Romo’s hands and avoid another collapse.

Like Mike Shanahan, Dallas coach Jason Garrett heard rumors about his tenuous job security around midseason. He still might lose it if his team loses tonight; Jerry Jones covets big names as much as Daniel Snyder does and might become enamored of Chip Kelly or (perish the thought) Andy Reid.

Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware is as explosive on defense as Robert Griffin III is on offense, Jason Witten as dependable as London Fletcher.

Dallas has played more big games recently, but doesn’t have a good track record in them. Shanahan gets the nod over Garrett in experience, but the Cowboys (and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan) now have a better idea of what to expect from Griffin than in their first meeting.

Neither team inspires the kind of awe that the Redskins and Cowboys of the ’70s , ’80s and early ’90s did. But they’re both finally entertaining (and successful) again.

If the Cowboys hadn’t gotten their act together in the nick of time, tonight’s game would serve as the Redskins’ coronation. Instead, it’s a confrontation.

And that’s much more fun.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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