Clutch play by Romo keeps Cowboys in playoff hunt

IRVING, Texas — In the spirit of this holiday season, reports show that Robert Griffin III has sold more jerseys than Tony Romo.

Nothing says Christmas to a long-suffering Washington Redskins fan like a No. 10 jersey.

Much will be written and said about Griffin in the days leading up to this unexpected NFC East showdown between the Cowboys and Redskins. It’s all deserved. But RG3 won’t be the only quarterback to take the field Sunday night whose superlative performance has his team one victory shy of a division title.

Did anyone believe the Cowboys would be in this position after they sank two games below .500 at the season’s midway point? Romo has been a crucial spark to this second-half surge.

“The biggest difference, especially in the last three or four weeks, is he’s really kind of honed the edges of that gunslinger mentality of his,” said Danny White, the former Cowboys quarterback who now serves as analyst for the team’s games on the Compass Media Network.

“Tony has always been a guy who had one speed, and it was full speed, pedal to the metal all the time, force the ball in once in a while when he didn’t need to or shouldn’t. The ability to flip that switch and have three speeds instead of one is something I’ve seen.”

The unseemly interceptions that led to losses against Chicago and the New York Giants in the first seven games of the season are gone. Romo has thrown 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions over the last eight games. He has thrown no interceptions in six of those games.

“He makes a ton of plays,” Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s just not making very many bad plays. He’s done a great job with the football. His decision-making, his care of the football has been very good.”

Running back DeMarco Murray’s return has made a difference. The threat of a run game has made it easier for Romo to operate.

“He hasn’t had to throw the ball on the run nearly as much,” White said. “Earlier in the season, he was just making things up. He was improvising. Most of their pass plays were improvisations on his part, scrambling out of pocket, finding an open receiver and getting the ball to him.

“These last few weeks, Tony is in the pocket a lot more. He’s setting his feet. Every quarterback is a lot more accurate when you can set your feet and deliver the ball rather than throwing it on the run.”

Romo is a Jedi master — this should help with jersey sales among Star Wars fans — when it comes to improvisation. He consistently makes something out of nothing.

That’s fine two to three times a game. But it’s a shaky foundation on which to build an offense. Too many decisions must be made in too short a period of time for it to be efficient.

Romo has cut down on his mistakes because he has found himself in those situations less. The offensive line is doing a better job of giving him time to throw.

“It all comes down to confidence in your protection,” White said. “He seems to have gained a lot of confidence lately for some reason. What happens is you don’t get hit as much and you start to settle down and hold in there a little longer.

“There were times earlier in the season where he ran out of the pocket when he didn’t need to. But when you’re getting hit like he was getting hit, I mean, it’s just instinct. You think you feel something or someone coming behind you and there really is nobody there.

“Now that he’s been hit less and less, he’s starting to have more confidence,” White continued. “Rather than run to the right or use that spin move of his, where he pirouettes and goes to his left, he’s stepping up in the pocket. That’s a big deal.”

So is this: in the fourth quarter, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers are the only players in the league with a higher quarterback rating than Romo. He has thrown for 719 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the fourth quarter of the last six games.

“Sometimes, you call plays as a quarterback in the fourth quarter and you just know what teams like to do, what they try to do against you,” Romo said. “You gain that understanding.

“It’s been very beneficial for us.”

RG3 won’t be the only quarterback on the field Sunday night.

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