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Weathered Cowboys savor playoff win

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Only two people received game balls after the Dallas Cowboys' 34-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night: Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips.

The Cowboys ended a 13-year playoff drought with one of their biggest victories in years. Make that in a decade.

In the closing moments of the Cowboys' victory, inside linebacker Keith Brooking acted as if he was pulling a gorilla off Phillips' back. This was the first playoff win in Phillips' career (1-4).

"It feels great," Phillips said.

Jones had a gorilla on his back as well. He's the man who put together teams in the past decade that failed him during the regular season and playoffs.

Now, the Cowboys prepare to visit the Minnesota Vikings a week from Sunday as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

"This isn't like we just won the tournament or we won the prize," Jones said. "So I do feel satisfied here, but it's more about what we're going to get to do in the next month, the next week."

But the Cowboys had to learn how to win throughout the years. This core group of players had to deal with losing in 2003 with Quincy Carter as the quarterback in the NFC wild-card game at Carolina.

Fast-forward to 2006, with quarterback Tony Romo sitting on the turf in Seattle trying to hold back tears after fumbling a snap that could have led to a winning field goal in a wild-card loss to the Seahawks.

In 2007, the Cowboys were the 13-3 darlings of the NFL yet lost in the divisional round to the New York Giants, who won the Super Bowl that season.

"I think for a lot of us, you can go back to when we played Carolina our rookie year," tight end Jason Witten said. "Just so many experiences of highs and lows. To get to this point is kind of surreal. Not to make it sound like we won the Super Bowl, but it's been a lot of freaking work to get to this point, and it seems we're hitting it at the right time."

The Cowboys ended this drought with two factors: quarterback play and defense.

Dallas started 12 quarterbacks during this decade-long run. It went with a Hall of Famer past his prime in Troy Aikman to veterans on their last legs in Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe. Carter's issues away from the field made him unreliable. And others such as Chad Hutchinson, Ryan Leaf and Clint Stoerner just weren't good enough.

There are other quarterbacks on this list, but they're not worth mentioning. But Romo is worth talking about. He's provided a steady hand at this position. As a starter, Romo is 38-17 after 55 regular-season games. He's won more games than Aikman (26-29) in the same number of games. And Romo had to learn how to win big games not only during the regular season but also in the postseason. He was 0-2 in the playoffs until Saturday night.

One reason Jones didn't want to fire Phillips after the 2008 season was his defensive instruction. Phillips wanted to add young fresh players who could make plays, not veterans who griped about playing time.

This season, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick have raised their games to another level. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer has become a strong complement to star outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

And although Phillips added veterans, they don't get upset about playing time or anything else. They just play.

Dallas signed defensive end Igor Olshansky instead of retaining the more expensive Chris Canty. Brooking, who some thought was on his last legs in Atlanta, has played with a vigor in Dallas.

The Cowboys go to Minnesota now with an expected edge. They knocked off the Eagles' West Coast offense three times this year and face a Vikings offense that provides similar looks.

It almost seems unreal that the Cowboys are in this situation, given how they've lost in the postseason and latter games of the season.

"To see some of the things that happened to us, thinking you had those games won or you should have won them, and to get this one feels good," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "I guess it's almost like waiting to get that new car and getting it home and you say, 'It's just a car.' For us, that's our mindset: We have to move forward. Good job, people will clap. For us, it's work. We got to go back to work and do what we have to do and go into Minnesota feeling like we're prepared well."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.