Technically, it is not a December game. So win or lose, it will not go on that December record with which everyone's always beating Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo about the head. The NFC East title game between the Cowboys and the New York Giants in MetLife Stadium will be played this Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012 -- a new year and a fresh chance for Romo to maybe get people saying some new things about him.
Romo, you see, is the guy who can't get it done. That's what the unshakable external narrative still says about him. It doesn't matter that he's fourth in the league in passer rating and completion percentage, fifth in touchdown passes or that he's thrown only nine interceptions. Doesn't matter how big a reason he is for the Cowboys' eight wins. All anybody ever seems to talk about with Romo is that he's the reason for two of the seven losses. And that he's still only won one playoff game. That December record. The botched field goal snap from five years ago.
This is the stuff that sticks to Romo, for whatever reason, and that's why Sunday's game is the biggest of Romo's career to this point. If he plays poorly and the Cowboys lose, Romo's critics will have fresh weaponry with which to club him. What's worse is that, if he plays brilliantly and the Cowboys lose, he'll still bear the blame. Romo was 21-for-31 with four touchdown passes in Week 14 when the Cowboys' defense melted down against the Giants, and people still got on him for a missed third-down throw that Miles Austin says he lost in the lights.
Romo can't win unless he plays great and wins and wins games like this next one. No matter the outcome, Sunday's game against the Giants is going to be a boldface line on Romo's résumé. And if the Cowboys want the outside world to feel the same way they do about him, they absolutely need to make sure it has a W next to it.
First off, it's a playoff game. No, it's not a postseason game, but for all purposes it is a playoff game. The winner advances. The loser's season ends. It will have a playoff crowd and playoff pressure and will be played under the lights in front of a national audience. That's a playoff game, no matter what the calendar says, and Romo is of course only 1-3 in those. If he wins Sunday, people may not remember it as a playoff game or a December win. But if he loses, you'd better believe the folks who think Romo's a loser are going to use this as part of their argument.
Secondly, it's against the Giants and Eli Manning. It was Manning and the Giants who beat Romo and the Cowboys in a playoff game in Dallas four years ago when Dallas was a 13-3 division champ and the Giants were an upstart wild card on its way to an improbable Super Bowl title. Romo was awful that day, hitting on just 18 of 36 passes and throwing the late interception to R.W. McQuarters while the Cowboys were trying to mount a winning drive. Manning and Romo have had remarkably similar careers and tracked parallel statistical paths, but the trump card in all of the Manning-Romo debates is that Manning has the Super Bowl ring, and that he got it by beating Romo along the way. Winning this game wouldn't erase that for Romo, but it would be a step in the right direction. And losing it would just add another log to the anti-Romo fire.
Third, playing great and winning would help Romo erase a lot of the bad memories from earlier this season. It's going to be a lot harder to remember the late interceptions against the Jets and the Lions if he throws four touchdowns to beat the Giants in the division-clincher. The season, at the very least, will have been something of a success, with the Cowboys claiming a division title few foresaw. But if he loses -- and my goodness, if he throws a backbreaking interception at a dumb point in the game -- well, then this year becomes about his mistakes. Cowboys fans can already point to the games he threw away earlier as the reason this division isn't clinched already, and in so doing ignore how brilliant he's been for the vast majority of the season. A loss Sunday makes the story of this Cowboys season a "What Might Have Been" tale, with Romo as one of the goats.
Romo says he doesn't care how people perceive him. And since he's 31 years old, rich, talented, playing great, newly married and has a baby on the way, he's believable. But at some point, everyone who plays quarterback in the NFL at the star-caliber level cares about his place in the game's history. Down the road, when Romo's story is written, the result of this Sunday's game could be a very big part of what that story says. If he wins it, he still has a chance to change the way the outside world looks at him and his career. But if he loses -- even if he plays his tail off and the defense gives it away again -- it's going to be really hard for Romo and his rep to come back from this one.