IRVING, Texas — The memory is as charming as a bad dream. To Tony Romo's credit, he doesn't shudder when asked about it. But it's clear that he's had to exercise a little mind control to exorcise the ugly ending of the 2008 season from his thoughts.
A year ago the Dallas Cowboys went to Philadelphia with a playoff berth at stake and they left with a humiliating 44-6 defeat.
"There's not a lot of games you play in where your game is decided without going to the later stages of the game," Romo said. "When you go in the fourth quarter — and I don't remember what the score was — it was pretty bleak. I haven't had too many experiences like that."
After three quarters, the score was 44-3. The Cowboys got a field goal in the fourth quarter while the Eagles relaxed and celebrated.
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The memory will never be totally purged, but the Cowboys can create a celebration for themselves Sunday when they again meet the Eagles in the final game of the regular season — this time in Arlington.
Both teams have clinched playoff berths, but the winner will win the NFC East and the right to host a first-round playoff game. And if the Cowboys are able to reverse the miserable result of a year ago, perhaps the biggest reason will be Tony Romo.
"When you've got a quarterback that is playing at Tony's level," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, "and you've got a defense playing that good, you can do some good things."
In the last five weeks, Romo has excelled. He has completed 125 of 186 passes for 1,548 yards and nine touchdowns, with only one interception. His passer rating is 138.9 in that stretch. His confidence level is probably at an all-time high. His leadership skills have evolved dramatically. And his focus is laser-like.
"Ever since I've been around Tony, he's been a tremendous practice player," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "He's been someone who wants to get better all the time.
"He's always working on something and whether that's a March throwing session on the practice field with him and two receivers and a coach watching him or a more formal practice setting or a game situation, he's always taken that approach.
"Ultimately, leadership comes by leading by example; people follow the lead of the quarterback. They follow how he behaves, how he conducts himself in the huddle, how he approaches the line of scrimmage, how he handles success and how he handles things when they don't go quite so well. It's a learning process for everybody.
"The approach that he's taken since I've been around him for three years now is I want to get better and I want to help everybody get better and he goes about that part of it very actively and consciously and it's one of the reasons he's improved and why we've improved."
Romo is obviously happy that the Cowboys have made the playoffs, but he said, "There's no sense of accomplishment. It's just a process that's taking shape. There's still a lot of football to be played. We're just going to continue to get better, improve each week and be ready."
When Romo threw for 286 yards against the Washington Redskins last week, he surpassed 4,000 yards for the second time in his career. He now has 4,127 yards and needs only 85 yards against the Eagles to beat his team record of 4,211 yards.
But as prolific as he has been, the major improvement in Romo's production has been his decision-making and his lack of turnovers.
Romo has had only eight interceptions in 516 attempts this season.
In his first full year as a starter in 2007, he had 19 interceptions in 520 attempts and last year, he had 14 in 450 attempts.
Romo has had streaks this season of 143 and 167 consecutive passes without an interception. Of quarterbacks who have attempted at least 300 passes, only Green Bay's Aaron Rogers and Minnesota's Brett Favre have thrown fewer interceptions than Romo. Both have thrown seven.
"He's in a groove now," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said of Romo. "He has a lot of confidence. The intangibles are there. He is real solid, he makes good decisions.... He's not turning the ball over and he's making big plays."
Garrett said that at times quarterbacks can reduce their number of interceptions by playing conservatively. But Romo continues "to make big plays or minimize the negative plays.
"A lot of times when people are minimizing negative plays, they go into a shell, and he hasn't done that," Garrett said. "That's a hard balance to achieve for a quarterback. He by no means has played perfectly, but I think his decision-making, his ability to create and be Tony Romo still exists. But he's not making some of those plays that hurt us."