Big step, but Cowboys 'still can't exhale'

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys kept talking last week about controlling their destiny. Suddenly, the subject doesn't seem so silly.

Amazing what a sound road win over a previously undefeated unit does for the perception of a team. But never mind outsiders' views of the Cowboys, whether they come from Tony Dungy or members of the media who don't own a Super Bowl ring. The Cowboys walked out of the Superdome on Saturday night with a justifiable swagger, having provided proof that all the hopeful talk at Valley Ranch wasn't just Pollyannaish propaganda.

"I'll tell you, for these guys in this locker room, it is definitely a confidence builder," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the 24-17 victory over the Saints in which the Cowboys led from the opening possession. "It creates an awareness on their part that they can compete with the best in a hostile situation. You add that to what I think is a talented team, and it makes us have a chance."

Brooking As talented as we are, I guarantee you there's going to be a lot of teams that do not want to face us when the playoffs get here. We just have to take care of our business.

-- Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking

It became clear this past weekend that the NFC doesn't have a dominant team. The Saints got smacked in the mouth by the Cowboys. There is a ton of December drama in Minnesota, with the Vikings looking bad in their second loss in three weeks plus their celebrity quarterback and coach disagreeing about whether their sideline discussion was "heated." The Philadelphia Eagles are the conference's hottest team, but the Cowboys don't fear a team they defeated on the road earlier this season.

Not that the Cowboys are spending any significant time pondering the NFC's playoff picture. They know they're in if they win their last two games, which is all that's important.

"As talented as we are, I guarantee you there's going to be a lot of teams that do not want to face us when the playoffs get here," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We just have to take care of our business.

"We said all along that we have to peak at the right time. We need to be playing our best football at the end of the year. If we build off this past Saturday and continue playing that way, then obviously we're going to be right where we want to be when the playoffs start."

The key is making sure that the victory in New Orleans is the foundation for a playoff push, not a footnote.

You might recall a lot of talk about the Cowboys controlling their own destiny after their December win over the New York Giants last season. They followed that up by losing to the Baltimore Ravens and getting blown out by the Eagles, a shameful end to a season that began with Super Bowl buzz.

The Cowboys don't want to dwell on the past, but it sounds as if they at least learned from it.

"We still can't exhale," tight end Jason Witten said Saturday night. "We can't relax now. We've got to keep it going, but I think this was a big step."

Receiver Miles Austin added, "We have to just start fresh and play as hungry as we did last week."

No matter what receiver Roy E. Williams says, the Cowboys can't just pack their bags, show up and expect to be victorious.

They realize that. They get that it will take total focus -- every day in practice and every play in games -- to put this team in position to accomplish its goals. They understand that the inconsistency that has plagued this team throughout the season will lead to elimination.

But they also realize the opportunity they have. They believe that Saturday night's show provided a glimpse of what this team is really about. They're confident that, unlike recent Cowboys teams, this group can play its best in big games and peak for the playoffs.

"This is the right time," Brooking said. "I think if we just continue to do that, then there's not a team in this league that can stop us."

That might have been a laughable line last week, but the Cowboys earned the right to be taken seriously with their win over the Saints.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.