So not to be overwhelmed by the game's magnitude -- on the road in a national TV game against Carolina and its fearsome front four and with the QB controversy-embroiled Cowboys season at a crossroads -- Tony Romo simply recalled Sunday what he had learned from the game's best big-game performer.
Trust your preparation.
For any young quarterback aspiring to go from draft-day afterthought to stardom, New England's three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady is the obvious role model.
Romo, 26, and Brady haven't met, but that didn't stop Romo from picking up advice in advance of his introduction to the big stage. Romo's summer reading list this year included "Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players Who Built a Champion" by Michael Holley.
"After Brady called his first play … he was amazed at how natural the game felt," Holley wrote of the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXVI win over St. Louis. "The play, which began at the Patriots' 3, was a 21-yard slant to Troy Brown. This didn't seem different from any other slant he had thrown his best receivers' way. This is what the hype is all about? he said to himself, almost wanting to laugh. It's a normal game."
Romo read "Patriot Reign" in the preseason and skims through it whenever he needs reassurance from someone like Brady, who's been there and done it all. That includes replacing Drew Bledsoe, the same QB benched by Dallas coach Bill Parcells in favor of Romo at halftime of a Monday night loss to the Giants nine days ago.
Brady's simple approach to The Biggest Game helped Romo -- the NCAA Division I-AA player of the year as a senior at Eastern Illinois and an undrafted free agent signing by the Cowboys in 2003 -- realize that the stage, the circumstances, the game, are not too big for him. Although he made his first start Sunday night, Romo, thanks in part to Brady, felt he, too, already had been there and done that.
"I'll tell you what," Romo said Monday, "that was big reading that.
"When I went out there, I mean, you get excited and you're ready to roll with energy, but nerves? They don't even come into play because you've prepared all week. I got out there and looked up at the crowd and everything, but it's the same thing you've been doing every time you stepped on the field. I don't care whether it was preseason or you played college or wherever it was, it's all still the same thing. It's still football. You've still got to make your reads, go through the things you've been doing all week, and if you're prepared for it, you already know what the defense is doing. Now it's just about you being able to see it and do it."
Any young quarterback who's coming out of nowhere and being asked to take his team somewhere -- in this case, the Cowboys entered the season with Super Bowl expectations -- naturally looks up to Brady. A sixth-round pick out of Michigan in 2000, Brady is the poster child for the potential in an unproven quarterback.
"You see the way he does things and you say, 'Gosh, that's the way I want to do things," Romo said of Brady. "The way he approaches the game. The guy does things the right way always. I'm not even talking about just on-the-field stuff. He puts himself in a position to succeed all the time."
"Thing about is, I'd watched so much film and I was so prepared for that, there wasn't anything they were going to do that was going to completely surprise me. I felt like I'd already seen it before. I'm sure I was wrong at some point on a few of them, but I know I was right a lot of the time, too."
Tony Romo, Cowboys QB
On Sunday night, the Cowboys found themselves in a difficult position early. Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal on Dallas' second possession. On the next possession, Romo, who had thrown three picks in the second half against New York, was intercepted when he tried to force a pass to Terrell Owens. The Panthers capitalized and led 14-0 after the first quarter.
From his box, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said to himself, "I've seen this movie before. Just last week. We were absolutely killing ourselves."
Romo, however, remained poised.
"I learned awhile back that in sports, and especially in this game, it's a long game," he said after the Cowboys rallied with 35 unanswered points. Romo did not commit another turnover and finished 24-for-36 for 270 yards and a touchdown pass to his friend and road roommate, Jason Witten, one of the Pro Bowl tight end's single-game season-high six receptions.
Romo was sacked just twice and used his mobility and pocket presence, both superior to that of Bledose, to avoid several others, buy his receivers time to get open, and minimize damage on potentially bad plays. By the end of the game, when Romo also had scrambled for 18 yards (including two third-down conversions) and faked a QB draw before connecting with Owens on a 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter, it was clear Romo's athleticism added another dimension to the offense.
"He's got really good instincts in the pocket," Jones said. "You can't coach that. It's impossible to coach that."
But it's more than just Romo's mobility that makes him, so far, an upgrade over Bledsoe. A backup his first three seasons, Romo, while occasionally lapsing into gunslinger mode, makes good, quick decisions. That's a lot easier to do when you have a pretty good idea what the defense is doing.
Romo, of course, has a long way to go before he's on Brady's campus, let alone in his class -- "Believe me, I'm not approaching Tom Brady status anytime soon," he said -- but at least he has the whole work ethic thing covered. Brady long ago understood that there is no success without sacrifice, and Romo's the same way.
Besides the roughly three hours a day he watches tape with coaches, Romo spent three hours a day on his own studying film of the Panthers. He knew that if were going to excel in his first start and beyond, he couldn't let the Panthers' defense surprise him. His goal was to go into the game having seen everything Carolina had done defensively its first seven games.
In other words, he wanted to feel as confident as Brady felt going into Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina. In "Patriot Reign", Brady said he felt like he was ready to play that game "on the Sunday we landed in Houston."
The Panthers tried to confuse Romo by playing what's known as an "Inverted Cover 2." In Cover 2, each safety is responsible for half the field, with the cornerbacks covering the flat areas. With the Inverted Cover 2, the safety comes down closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap. But when the ball is snapped, he drops into the cornerback's usual coverage area while the cornerback assumes the safety's responsibility and plays over the top. Sometimes the Panthers would blitz the safety and have end Julius Peppers drop into the coverage on the opposite side.
The idea is to throw off the quarterback's read progression by making him think the defense is in Cover 3 with a single safety covering the deep middle, or "single high." Carolina tried to trick him with the Inverted Cover 2 when Romo hit Owens for 19 yards on a skinny post in the third quarter, one of Romo's finest throws of the game and one of Owens' nine receptions for 109 yards, his most as a Cowboy.
"Thing about it is," Romo said, "I'd watched so much film and I was so prepared for that, there wasn't anything they were going to do that was going to completely surprise me. I felt like I'd already seen it before. I'm sure I was wrong at some point on a few of them, but I know I was right a lot of the time, too."
Dallas has been nothing but wrong on quarterbacks since Troy Aikman retired after the 2000 season; Romo is the Cowboys' ninth starter since the recent Hall of Fame inductee. They've gone the high-profile-veteran-free-agent route, signing former No. 1 overall picks Vinny Testaverde and then Bledsoe prior to last season. They thought they could resurrect the once-promising career of former second overall pick Ryan Leaf. Two years ago, Romo was third string behind Drew Henson, the former blue-chip prospect with whom, coincidentally, Brady famously shared time at Michigan. Funny how Dallas might have found its QB first after the draft and then, three years later, on its bench.
"Romo has a swagger, this good confidence about himself. He thinks he's the coolest guy on the squad," Dallas linebacker Bradie James said after Sunday night's win, the first of three straight Cowboys road games. Dallas plays at Washington on Sunday and at Arizona Nov. 12 before returning home to play the Colts.
"He's never started before, but everybody's always believed in Romo," James said.
Romo is the quarterback of America's Team, playing for a demanding coach in Bill Parcells and with a receiver who is notoriously hard on his quarterbacks. But Romo has helped rekindle talk of a deep playoff run in Dallas. No pressure, right?
"That's why you play the game," he said. "You want to have that on your shoulders. I'd have played a different position in a different sport if I didn't want that pressure on me.
"For me, it's always been this: I feel like I should succeed if I put forth the time and the effort to put myself in position."
Romo didn't arrive at home Monday until 6 a.m. -- the Cowboys' plane made an emergency stop in Nashville when an assistant coach fell ill -- and he didn't fall asleep until 7. By Monday evening, he hadn't yet had an opportunity to respond to the 41 text messages that were waiting for him on his Treo in the locker room after the win or to the message friend Nancy Lieberman left him last week reminding him to be confident.
"Just having another week like the feeling I had the week before wasn't going to sit well with me," he said. "I tried to prepare to the point where I couldn't allow that to happen."
Brady couldn't have said it better.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.