Last season our Dallas Cowboys knew they had the makings of a pretty darned good NFL football team. And they backed that feeling up with some impressive victories during the first half of the 2007 campaign.

The Pokes continued the onslaught of big wins as the weather got colder, winning the NFC East Division and finishing the regular season with a dazzling 13-3 record and were seeded No. 1 in the NFC playoffs with the home field advantage throughout the playoffs and a first-round bye.

Of course the reality of the situation is that the Dallas Cowboys had NOT won an NFL playoff game since 1996. But that shouldn’t enter into the equation, especially because they were playing a team they had already defeated twice that season—the rival New York Giants of the NFC East Division.

The defense-oriented Giants were leading Dallas 21-17 in the final minute of the playoff game, but the Cowboys were driving toward the Giants’ goal. On a fourth down situation, quarterback Tony Romo spotted an open receiver in the end zone but underthrew him and the pass was picked off, ending another frustrating season for the Dallas Cowboys.

The previous January against the Seattle Seahawks, Romo mishandled the snap for a potential game-winning field goal and was tackled a yard short of the goal line in a 21-20 Seahawks wild-card win.

Ever since that loss to the Giants, who went on to use that superb defense to win Super Bowl XLII, Romo and his teammates have been driven to follow the Giants’ lead.

“You wouldn’t be competitive if that loss didn’t affect you for a while,” Romo said recently at a Cowboys’ minicamp. “At the same time, I’ve always been a guy who looked to take the next step and figure out what I have to do better. If we’re two plays better, we’re hopefully in the Giants’ situation.”

So as the start of the football training camps approaches later this month, America’s Team is rededicated to raising a record sixth Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2008 season. Winning Super Bowl XLIII is foremost on nearly every Cowboys’ 2008 to-do list.
From high-profile Terrell Owens and Romo to owner Jerry Jones, Head Coach Wade Phillips and creative offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who declined coaching interest from the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, getting to the Super Bowl is Priority No. 1.
After adding suspended cornerback Adam “Don’t Call Me Pacman Anymore” Jones, first-round running back Felix Jones and former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas to a roster studded with 13 Pro Bowlers, expectations are greater than at any time since the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

The Cowboys are considered early favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII. And, according to a recent issue of USA Today Sports Weekly, “with their mix of star power, swagger and potentially combustible character risks, the Cowboys are not just America’s Team. This summer, they will be HBO’s poster ‘Boys, starring in the cable network’s training camp reality series ‘Hard Knocks’.”

USA Today continues, “From their flamboyant receiver to their fun-loving quarterback ands his singer/actress girlfriend to the talented and troubled ‘Pacman’ Jones and rehabilitating defensive tackle Tank Johnson, America’s Team is a producer’s dream.”
“It’s fair to say this should go through the roof,” HBO Sport President Ross Greenburg says of the ratings.

Now the big question Dallas Cowboys’ fans ask is will a high-profile team finally play up to its potential? Sealing the deal is one reason Garrett returned. Another is because his owner made Garrett the NFL’s highest-paid assistant at $3 million a year. His first season as a play-caller Dallas averaged 28.4 points, second to the Patriots.

“I just have a really fond feeling for what’s happening,” Garrett said. “I work for a great owner, with a great head coach and assistant coaches. And when you have leaders like Tony Romo, T.O. and Jason Witten, when your best players set the tempo for what your work ethic is, you really have a chance.

“All of our star players were so committed and worked so hard, it became easy for the rest of us to follow that example,” Garrett concluded.

When Phillips took over the team from Bill Parcells, he held the Cowboys’ reins much looser. Phillips hired a disc jockey to literally keep practices upbeat. “Dude, we had fun in practice and training camp,” Owens said of Phillips. “He didn’t kill us.”

And Phillips did something more impressive than win 13 games with two new coordinators. He balanced 53 diverse egos, especially the huge one that belongs to Owens.

“That guy (T.O.) was exemplary last year,” Phillips evaluated. “So it’s hard for me to say how he was before. I had heard a lot of things. There had been certain controversy in his career. But that wasn’t the guy I saw. It was him doing all the right things.”

KWICKIES… The Houston Texans will play their first nationally-televised game against Jacksonville Dec. l on Monday Night Football in their 108th game of their franchise’s existence.
As usual our Houston Astros get a mini-winning streak (two-in-a-row) just before there’s a break in the action. After looking good winning against the hapless Washington Nationals Saturday (6-4) and Sunday (5-0), the Stroes break four days for the All-Star Game. The Astros (44-51) will host the first-place Chicago Cubbies (57-38) for a three-game weekend series beginning Friday to see if they can keep the winning streak alive.

And speaking of streaks, Texas Rangers’ All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler banged out three hits Sunday against the Chicago White Sox, extending his majors-best hitting streak to 25 games. Philadelphia Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins stole two bases Sunday giving him 38 straight, the longest streak in the majors, dating back to Aug. 31, 2007. The New York Mets go into the All-Star break with a nine-game winning streak.

The Rice Owls earned the Conference-USA Institutional Excellence Award for the third straight year. This prestigious award is given to the school with the highest grade point average during the current academic year for all student/athletes in conference-sponsored sports. The Rice GPA was 3.014.

JUST BETWEEN US…Orange’s Scott Sterling enjoyed receiving one of his best paychecks ($79,800) since joining the PGA-Tour. Sterling shot rounds of 67-67-67-72—273 and finished in a tie for 12th place in last weekend’s PGA-John Deere Classic. Kenny Perry won the event on the first playoff hole after posting a score of 268. It was the third win for Perry in his last five starts and was worth $756,000.