Defense erasing Cowboys' demons

LANDOVER, Md. -- Tony Romo offered a challenge after the Dallas Cowboys punched their playoff ticket Sunday night.

"Find me another defense that you'd want right now," Romo said after the Cowboys' 17-0 win over the Washington Redskins.

It's hard to argue against the quarterback's point, at least in the NFC, considering that the Cowboys had allowed the fewest points in the conference even before pitching the shutout. They're allowing 16.7 points per game after leaving a goose egg on the FedEx Field scoreboard, the franchise's first shutout since a December 2003 performance which also happened to be on the road against the Redskins.

The Dallas defense has been pretty good all season. It's been downright dominant during the most important stretch, leading the way to critical wins the last two weeks.

The Cowboys held the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints' top-ranked offense to 17 points -- less than half its average total -- in last week's win at the Superdome. The Redskins won't be confused with one of the league's top offenses, but it's impressive to go on the road and hold any NFL team to 218 total yards and no points.

"They just would hardly let 'em breathe," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, punctuating the sentence with a wide smile. "They were stifling."

Jones pays head coach Wade Phillips, who added the defensive coordinator title this offseason, about $3 million per year for that sort of dominance.

Phillips' players have come through for him when he needed it most, hushing discussion of their December demons.

Nobody in the Cowboys' locker room is surprised by the defense's success against the Saints and Redskins. They are encouraged, however, that the pieces appear to be fitting together perfectly as the playoffs near.

The defensive line sets the tone, controlling the line of scrimmage, with nose tackle Jay Ratliff (two sacks against Washington) wreaking havoc in the backfield. That lets the inside linebackers roam freely, putting them in playmaking mode. Outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer force foes to change game plans. The secondary, keyed by cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, is preventing the big play and making plays on the ball, such as Newman's interception that set up the Cowboys' first touchdown against the Redskins.

They just would hardly let 'em breathe. They were stifling.

-- Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones on his team's defense against the Redskins

"We've been under the radar, you know what I mean?" said linebacker Bradie James, who had a team-high 12 tackles. "Nobody's really been saying too much about us, but we've just been steadily improving."

With five new starters, Phillips figured his defense would be much better in the winter than the fall. The development of two young players -- recent first-round picks Spencer and Jenkins -- has been especially important.

Jenkins, who has a team-high five interceptions, has emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate. Phillips is comfortable leaving Jenkins on an island against receivers, allowing the secondary to focus on other areas in pass coverage. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, who rarely had time to throw deep, took two shots downfield against Jenkins. Receiver Santana Moss was flagged for offensive pass interference when he pulled Jenkins' arm to prevent a pick. The other downfield throw was an incompletion that Malcolm Kelly came down with out of bounds. Jenkins probably would have picked off that throw if it had been on target.

Spencer, like Jenkins in his first full season as a starter, has simply been dominant in the latter half of the season. He's been a disruptive force against the run all season and is starting to rack up the sack totals expected out of an edge rusher in Phillips' scheme. Spencer has two sacks the last two weeks (1.5 against the Saints, 0.5 on Sunday against the Redskins when he split one with Igor Olshansky).

"It's inevitable that we're going to get better playing this game," Spencer said. "It's just getting better at the right time."

This appears to be a defense on the verge of peaking in the playoffs, giving the Cowboys a good chance to end a postseason win drought that dates to the 1996 season. The Dallas defense is eager to see how good it can be.

"The thing that I love about our defense is that we're never satisfied with what we've accomplished," inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We want to continue to get better. We realize that we haven't peaked at this point, and there's a lot of room for improvement.

"To get to where we want to go, to accomplish the things we want to accomplish, we have to get a lot better. We have that belief. We have that mentality. We want to show everybody."

Romo, for one, is already a believer.

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