DALLAS -- Just in case you thought the gap between the New England Patriots and the rest of the NFL had closed to two car lengths, think again. After what happened here Thursday evening at Texas Stadium the Patriots' place atop the league's food chain is as secure as gold ingots at Fort Knox.
It would be nice to report that the Dallas Cowboys' 37-27 win against the Green Bay Packers has a greater cosmic meaning than just clinching a playoff spot and probable home-field advantage throughout the postseason. But it doesn't. The 11-1 Cowboys are the class of the NFC which, compared to the unbeaten Patriots, is like saying Britney Spears is the class of rocker parents.
The Cowboys won fair and square and they won decisively. Their best-ever 11-1 start is no small thing. In fact, it's a very big thing. In the NFC.
But the Cowboys still aren't the Patriots. The undefeated Patriots of the more muscular AFC remain the best team in the league. The Cowboys are No. 2, but the gap between first and second is significant. Significant doesn't mean insurmountable, though.
Slowly and steadily the Cowboys are proving to be a team you'd rather not see on your schedule. They won't terrify you the way the Patriots will, but it isn't a stretch to mention the combo of Tony Romo and Terrell Owens in the same paragraph with New England's football royalty, Tom Brady and Randy Moss.
Romo only needed 19 completions to finish with 309 yards and four touchdowns -- five, if Owens doesn't bumble away a sure score in the end zone early in the fourth quarter. But that was about it for Owens mistakes. He had seven catches for 156 yards and one touchdown. He celebrated his 14th score of the season by pouring a minibucket of popcorn through his facemask. A Siskel & Ebert tribute? You never know with TO.
What we do know is that the Cowboys are getting better, even dominant during bits and pieces of a game. But if the Patriots and the Cowboys played tomorrow, New England would win. The difference is it wouldn't win by 21 points, like it did Oct. 14 at Texas Stadium. That might not sound like progress, but remember we're just entering December. The Cowboys are thinking Super Bowl XLII, which means they have two more months for a growth spurt.
"I don't know that we're playing better than anybody else, but we are playing as well as we've played all year long," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was fighting a cold. "And that's the way that you dream of it being as we go into these type of ballgames."
Romo now has 33 touchdowns, easily breaking the franchise record for passing TDs in a season. Owens has his 14 scores and is setting a franchise record for smiles. And coach Wade Phillips apparently leads the league in fan adulation.
"Great job," said a Romo jersey-wearing fan who somehow snuck into the postgame media conference. "Great job."
"What is this?" said Phillips, smiling at the fan. "Did I put my own shill in this?"
Phillips can laugh at it all because the Cowboys just won three games in 12 days and will be favored during the rest of their regular-season schedule (at Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, at Carolina Panthers, at Washington Redskins). But he's smart enough to understand the Cowboys aren't anywhere close to a perfect team.
"I think we can get better," he said.
If they don't, the Cowboys are doomed in a Patriots rematch. Sure, they beat the 10-1 Packers, but it wasn't Ring of Honor quality stuff. Don't get me wrong; it was impressive at times. Other times, not so much.
OK, the Wisconsin-raised Romo resembled his football hero Brett Favre more than Favre did. Jones said he'd never seen Romo so geeked for a game. During the pregame introduction, Romo sprinted from the tunnel like he was being chased by the Burlington, Wisc., police.
"I think when I got out to the field, you know, this is pretty neat," Romo said. "This is why you want to play sports."
Romo shook hands with Favre before kickoff and chatted for a few moments ("Exchanging recipes and stuff," said Romo. "Normal guy stuff."). But Romo knows who the homestate icon is, and who isn't.
"Honestly, I don't think there were more than four people that rooted for me in my hometown," Romo said.
That's OK, Cowboys fans adore him. But before you just automatically concede the NFC title to the Cowboys, remember they beat a Packers team that was missing cornerback and return man Charles Woodson and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. And with 10:11 in the second quarter, Favre staggered to the sideline after getting drilled on a corner blitz (hello, Nate Jones). He never returned to the game and was later diagnosed with a separated left shoulder and some type of right elbow injury.
"If anyone's ever hit their funny bone," said Favre of the elbow injury, "imagine hitting it 10 times harder with a hammer. That's about what it feels like."
That's what it felt like to Favre, who insists he'll play in the Dec. 9 game against the
Oakland Raiders. What it felt like to the Packers was the equivalent of a sucker punch, though backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers played well enough. But put it this way: Favre entered the game with 60,866 career passing yards. Rodgers entered it with 128. His first touchdown pass of Thursday night (an 11-yarder to Greg Jennings) was also the first of his three-year NFL career.
Even without Woodson, Gbaja-Biamila and the great Favre, the Packers trailed by just three points nearly midway through the fourth quarter. It wasn't until Nick Folk kicked a 25-yard field goal to give Dallas a 10-point lead with 63 seconds remaining that the Packers were officially toast.
"I'm sure we can beat them," said Favre. "We can lose to them. We have to play our best football. That goes for whoever we play, especially these guys, especially at their place. It's football. Anything can happen. I hope we get the chance to play them again."
The Cowboys feel the same way about the Patriots, though they might not say it publicly. Phillips, Romo and a handful other Cowboys all recited a similar version of the same speech: There's still four regular-season games left. A lot can happen.
Romo said that if the Cowboys' chances of reaching the Super Bowl were 50 percent before Thursday night's win, they're now "52 percent."
"Fifty-two percent?" muttered Owens as he followed Romo to the podium. "What the [bleep] is that?"
It's 2 percent better than where they started, that's what it is. When you're talking about catching the Patriots, every little bit helps.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.