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Cowboys need classic Tony Romo

Now the season starts for the Dallas Cowboys.

While the players have adopted Jason Garrett's one-game-at-a-time philosophy, they will still hear about their previous December woes.

One player must deal with December more than any other: Tony Romo.

For as good as he's been in November, 19-2, in December he's 7-10. He's never had an above-.500 mark in December, going 2-2 in 2007 and 2009. In the 2009 season, Romo led the Cowboys to his lone playoff victory.

In 17 December games, Romo has 21 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Since 2006, there are 25 quarterbacks with a better passer rating than Romo's 80.3.

Heading into the Cowboys' Dec. 4 contest at Arizona, the past two games leave you scratching your head about the quarterback. He's spun away from defenders to complete passes. He's also underthrown a pass that was intercepted.

It's that freelancing that worries you about Romo's ability to lead the Cowboys.

Romo's early-season struggles, including his two fourth-quarter interceptions versus the New York Jets and two interceptions versus the Detroit Lions, are concerning.

But it was classic Romo leading the Cowboys to wins over the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins in the closing moments.

Which Romo will you get in December?

The Cowboys need the classic Romo, the one who has a strong running game to help him push the offense down the field. If Romo freelances, you might get worried. But if he competes passes, then relax.

The Cowboys don't need the freelancing Romo that makes mistakes and puts drives and games at risk.

"It's just about winning," Romo said. "When you've played the game long enough, that literally is what it comes down to. If you use last week, statistically it was a fine game for a quarterback, but if it were a loss, it would have been very disappointing and it wouldn't have been good enough. This week, obviously the start of the game was difficult and we've got to do things better."

In a 27-24 overtime win over the Redskins, Romo completed 23 of 37 passes for 292 yards with three touchdowns, compiling a 113.8 rating.

On Thanksgiving Day, Romo followed it up with two first-half interceptions versus the Dolphins. But he responded to finish with 226 passing yards on 22 of 34 attempts with the two picks and two touchdowns.

Forget about the quarterback rating, 78.8, for a moment and think about what he did down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, Romo completed 7 of 10 passes for 73 yards with one touchdown.

DeMarco Murray finished the game strong with five carries for 27 yards in the fourth, including some quality runs to set up the winning field goal by Dan Bailey.

Although Murray and Bailey are heroes for finishing the drive, it was Romo's playmaking skills throughout the game that everyone noticed.

"I mean, that's what he does," said Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, who was on the Cowboys' staff in 2006, when Romo became the starter. "It's not the first time I've seen Tony do that, and I've been part of him doing that. I mean, the guy made a couple of really courageous plays. He hung in there."

The Cowboys like to hear people talk about their quarterback in terms of being courageous and staying in there when things are going bad.

How it translates into victories in December is uncertain.

He should get his top receiver, Miles Austin, back from a hamstring injury. Austin adds to an offense that has developed a comfort level with Romo.

Austin's replacement, Laurent Robinson, has at least one touchdown reception in each of the past five games and Murray is getting better every game. When he gets the ball at least 20 times, the Cowboys are 5-0.

It seems everything is designed to give Romo a comfort level heading into December. He's playing more relaxed, has good chemistry with his receivers and likes how the run game is producing results.

If this turns into December wins, Romo will silence some of his critics.

For now.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.