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Pain goes away, but pressure doesn't

IRVING, Texas -- Every week in the NFL there is pressure to perform. Sometimes, that pressure comes with risk.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo could play Monday night against the Washington Redskins with a fractured rib. He won't be the first player to participate in a game with a fractured bone in his body, but Romo is also recovering from a small puncture of the lung -- now healed -- caused by the fracture.

The rib won't heal in time for the game against the Redskins at Cowboys Stadium. It's not like the visitors care; cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, if given the chance, he will knock Romo in the ribs. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said since it's not legal to hit a quarterback in the head or the legs, the middle is the best place.

These are the risks Romo will face Monday.

It's an important game for the Cowboys, who avoided a dreadful 0-2 start with a dramatic 27-24 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. Now at 1-1, a Cowboys victory can push them into first place in the NFC East.

But if Romo plays and gets hurt again, is the price he paid worth it?

"As you play the position, and you've been here a while, you just know how precious each game is, how important each season is," Romo said. "You just don't want to miss a game. ... The Packers just get into the playoffs last year. They were banged up, a lot of things were going on, and then they get rolling and stuff happens. So a game matters. I understand that. Sometimes you're only afforded one or a couple opportunities. You need to take advantage."

All around, Romo's teammates are battling injuries.

Last week in San Francisco, wide receiver Miles Austin gutted through a strained hamstring only to aggravate the injury late in the game. Guard Derrick Dockery played through a leg fracture and a sprained MCL. Tight end Jason Witten has bruised ribs.

Mike Jenkins is not 100 percent because he's recovering from a hyperextended knee and a bruised shoulder. Running back Felix Jones battled through a dislocated shoulder.

Former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells used to say football players play. Playing through pain is what they do. This is not golf or tennis. This is a physically demanding sport, one in which a hit can end a player's season.

The risk NFL players take on a weekly basis is tremendous because their careers are so short. Sure, they get paid millions of dollars and enjoy fame, but players don't want to sit on the bench.

"In some ways we're lucky because I don't know that we have a lot of long-term injuries happening right now for our team," Romo said. "However, we're banged up at the moment. That's going to happen throughout a season. We have a lot of guys hurt, so we need some guys to step up and play.

"A lot of guys have stepped up with some injuries that they've gutted out more than I have. Not everybody does that. I appreciate them. I just love the effort and commitment that a lot of these guys in this room made."

It's that pressure to fight through injury that fuels Romo and the others.

In 2009, DeMarcus Ware crashed into the leg of a San Diego Chargers offensive lineman and suffered a severe neck sprain. He was immobilized on a stretcher and carted off the field.

It was a scary moment and there was a feeling he would not play the next game at New Orleans.

Not only did Ware play, he also picked up two sacks and three quarterback pressures as the Cowboys knocked off the then-undefeated New Orleans Saints. It was one of the biggest wins of the Wade Phillips era.

Ware had recovered in enough time. He didn't start against the Saints but made a difference in that game.

The Cowboys had struggled in the final month of the season in years past, but that Saints game started a three-game win streak. They clinched a playoff berth and a home playoff game.

Dallas would knock off the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-14, at Cowboys Stadium to mark their first playoff win since 1996. You can point to other moments, but Ware's return from that neck injury is probably at the top of the list of magical things from that 2009 season.

"There was a lot of pressure, because that game was so big," Ware said. "I think they were 13-0, we were still trying to have some type of berth. Defensively I'm like, 'I've got to get out there and rush.' I got to get out there and try to contribute a little bit even if I can play 10 plays and I put that on myself to get out there and do my best."

The pressure on Romo to play after the Week 1 loss to the New York Jets increased because of his two fourth-quarter turnovers that cost his team the game. Romo wanted to play better against the 49ers. He didn't need to prove to his teammates he was a tough guy, or that they could depend on him. But he understood the ramifications of a 0-2 start.

Romo's injury did little to take the pressure off. He returned and led the team to game-tying and game-winning drives. For as much credit as Jesse Holley gets for that 77-yard catch in overtime, Romo should get props for changing the play in the huddle and having enough strength to launch the pass down the seam to Holley.

Now Romo -- if cleared by doctors -- will get another chance to lead the Cowboys on Monday night.

"A guy like Tony, I know how big this game is right now," Ware said. "We're 1-1, playing against a 2-0 Washington team and if you beat them you can be [in first-place] in the division. A lot of pressure on him, knowing it's early in the season [and] last year we lost against them and we know how that season went. So I feel like there's a lot of pressure on him to get out there and play."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.