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Winning Weekend Puts Cowboys Back Atop NFC East

By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer
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136047675 Winning Weekend Puts Cowboys Back Atop NFC East

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 17: Running back Felix Jones #28 of the Dallas Cowboys runs for a gain against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers December 17, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

IRVING (AP) – Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys came out with a sense of urgency, as though they had something to accomplish.

They wound up having a great weekend that put them back in first place in the NFC East.
“We just can’t let up,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “We know where we want to go and it don’t matter who comes in here, we’re going to keep the same intensity and just play hard and hopefully we can win out. … We just got to keep focusing and keep playing hard.”

Dallas (8-6) reclaimed the division lead by a game over the New York Giants with two to play. A week after winning at Cowboys Stadium, New York (7-7) lost at home Sunday to Washington knowing the Cowboys had already won 31-15 at Tampa Bay the previous night.

“We really needed to get back on track,” said Romo, who threw three touchdowns and ran for another as the Cowboys took a 28-0 halftime lead against the Buccaneers.

Coach Jason Garrett spoke Sunday about how his team practiced well and with purpose all last week, and then played that way against Tampa Bay.

So what kind of added boost did the Cowboys get by the Giants losing?

“It doesn’t matter to us. What we are focused on is our football team,” Garrett said. “Again, processing this game (against Tampa) and going forward is the challenge we have this week against Philadelphia.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that the Cowboys can clinch the division by winning their last two regular season games — or with a win next weekend in their home finale against Philadelphia combined with a Giants loss to the Jets. Dallas finishes the season on the road New Years’ Day against the Giants.

“We’ve got to get the wins. We’ve got to get in,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the game in Tampa Bay. “Best way to do it is win this thing.”

While there is a clear-cut way to get to the playoffs, the Cowboys have already lost this season to both of the division foes that combined for 71 points and 1,005 total yards. That included a 34-7 loss against the Eagles at the end of October before Dallas swept through November with four consecutive wins.

Then came December, when the Cowboys lost in overtime at Arizona after rookie Dan Bailey’s apparent game-winning kick at the end of regulation was erased by Garrett’s timeout. They blew a 12-point lead over the final 5 1/2 minutes and lost 37-34 to the Giants after Bailey’s potential tying kick was blocked at the end of the game.

“It’s a big win for us (because) we know about the December woes,” tight end Jason Witten said. “The only way to put that behind you is to get a big win.”

So different than the gloomy feeling the past two weeks.

“We are a very confident team. … I don’t think we look at it as `Hey, we win two we get in.’ I think we just take it one day at a time, one week at a time,” Witten said. “Obviously, Philly got us good earlier in the year and they are coming to our place. It is going to be a tough challenge and that is where our focus is.”

Notes: Cowboys players had the day off Sunday, the first of consecutive days without practicing. They will return Tuesday to start preparing for another Saturday kickoff. … Dallas’ eighth victory guarantees a .500-or-better finish in the regular season for the 34th time in franchise history. … Bailey has made 32 field goals in 14 games. The only Cowboys kicker to make more field goals in a 14-game span was Richie Cunningham’s 33 in 1997. … Romo is only 105 yards shy of his third career 4,000-yard passing season.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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