Tony Romo gives Cowboys a shot

A playful smirk crept across Tony Romo's face as he buttoned his dress shirt in the almost empty visitors' locker room Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium after a convincing win over the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Hey," Romo said to a couple of media stragglers, "what were the Packers at this time last year?"

It was a rhetorical question. Romo is well aware that the Green Bay was 8-6 and needed wins the last two weeks of the regular season to punch its playoff ticket before becoming Super Bowl XLV champion. It was Romo's way of warning against counting out his 8-6 Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys still firmly believe they're Super Bowl contenders.

This season has been a wild ride -- and there's still a ton of work to do just to make the tournament -- but the Cowboys really think they have a chance to win it all.

Call that kind of confidence crazy if you want, but this team genuinely considers itself good enough to run the table if it gets a break here and there. The Cowboys have plenty of flaws to nitpick, but they also have the most important ingredient in the recipe for a champion: a franchise quarterback playing phenomenally well.

That's why Jerry Jones declared that it'd be a "career disappointment" if the Cowboys miss the playoffs. The owner of a team that has won only one playoff game in the past decade and a half recognizes how rare of an opportunity it is to have a quarterback performing as well as Romo right now.

Romo, who is probably more than midway through his prime at age 31, can't be classified as an elite quarterback yet. He needs a ring to be considered for the same tier as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New England's Tom Brady, Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.

Then again, Rodgers didn't belong in that tier until his brilliant Super Bowl performance. A year ago, he was a talented quarterback who had never won a playoff game.
And Romo has been every bit as good so far this year as Rodgers was during the 2010 regular season.

Just check the stats: Romo has a 102.6 passer rating after throwing for 3,895 yards and 29 touchdowns with only nine interceptions through 14 games. Rodgers, who is putting up potentially historic numbers this season, had a 101.2 passer rating after throwing for 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 15 games a year ago.

It's not just numbers. Romo has continued to improve the intangible qualities so important to succeeding in the most high-profile position in sports. He's a more mature competitor and comfortable leader now than in the past, when he's lost three of four playoff games.

"Clearly, the quarterback position is the leadership position on the team," head coach Jason Garrett said. "So if you have a guy who steps into that role and grabs all that comes with that leadership position and you have his ability as a player and his ability to relate to guys, I think it's a real positive thing for your football team."

Of course, the rub on Romo's spectacular 2011 campaign is the wild ride of the first four games. He gave two wins away with turnovers, blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in the season opener against the New York Jets and letting the Detroit Lions set an NFL road record by rallying from 24 points down.

But the "Romo coaster" has been pretty smooth since then, although the Cowboys have found other creative ways to lose a few games. Since his three-pick second half against the Lions, Romo has thrown only four interceptions in 10 games, passing for 21 touchdowns in that span.

And Romo has reversed his career-long trend of regressing late in the season. All he's done this December is pass for 869 yards and eight touchdowns with no picks in three games.

The problem is Romo couldn't save the Cowboys from losing the first two games this month. That prevented them from already wrapping up a playoff bid.

However, when a quarterback is playing this well, anything is possible. Just look at last season's Packers as proof.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.