Tony Romo eyes chance to lift burden

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Tony Romo walked out of the Dallas Cowboys' locker room Saturday night, he answered rat-a-tat questions about his bruised right hand.

After the "I'll be fines," and "We're good to gos," Romo was asked if the 20-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and the injury had dampened his mood, like a lump of coal inside a Christmas stocking.

"Oh no, I'm excited," Romo said. "The playoffs start."

If the Cowboys win Jan. 1 against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, they will make the playoffs for the fourth time in Romo's six years as the starting quarterback. Lose and they will look at another season in which they failed to finish with their future in their hands.

To Romo, there is no "if" regarding his availability for the NFC East championship game.

The top of his hand was swollen and he held it carefully by his side as he walked to an elevator to take him to the players' parking lot outside Cowboys Stadium, but you could tell he was already thinking about the Giants.

Had the Giants lost to the New York Jets on Saturday, Romo would have returned to the huddle.

Here is a guy who on Sept. 18 returned from a fractured rib and punctured lung at San Francisco to deliver an overtime victory. Here is a guy who played most of the next six weeks with a bulky protective vest and needed pain-killing injections just to get through games.

He will not let a bruised hand keep him out of the most important game of the season.

"I know what he's about," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "He lives to be in these opportunities."

Romo has dispelled many perceptions about him in 2011.

The first to go were questions about his leadership.

It started in April when he sent his teammates an email about the minicamp-like practices they would hold during the lockout at Dragon Stadium in Southlake, Texas.

More than 40 players were in attendance for the workouts that ran through the month of May. With a whistle in his mouth and practice plans in his shorts, Romo was a quasi-coach as the players went through brisk workouts.

It carried into training camp, where he was more assertive and direct with his approach.

The next to go were questions about his toughness and the ability to slightly alter his style. After a second-half meltdown against the Detroit Lions in which he was intercepted three times and the Cowboys coughed up a 27-3 lead, Romo vowed to be better.

Since November, his level of play has been on par with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans' Drew Brees and New England's Tom Brady, even if he was not given the same notice. In his last 11 games, he has 22 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He completed at least 61.3 percent of his passes in eight of the 11 games.

He struck that balance he had in 2009, when he made outrageous plays while buying time yet not turning the ball over.

Romo has 29 touchdown passes and has been intercepted only nine times. His only two passes before the injury Saturday fell incomplete, but he has 3,895 yards passing on the season. He should have his third 4,000-yard passing season of his career.

There is one more burden he will have a chance to lift against the Giants.

It's a commonly held thought that Romo never wins the big game. The only big games Romo has ever played, according to those who believe he always chokes, are the ones he loses. They will point to his December record, now 8-13, while failing to provide any sort of context to it.

And this week they will point to the 2008 season finale at Philadelphia, when the Cowboys faced the same win-and-in situation. Romo completed 21-of-39 passes for 183 yards. He was intercepted once, sacked three times and hit dozens more in a 44-6 thrashing by the Eagles.

"He's a fighter," Witten said. "He's a winner. He's an emotional leader for our team."

The Cowboys' season opened at MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets. Two fourth-quarter turnovers by Romo turned a 10-point lead into a three-point loss.

A little less than four months later, Romo returns with the playoffs on the line.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.