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DeMarco Murray levels Cowboys' field

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Like a smart rookie running back, DeMarco Murray deflects credit for his phenomenal production, heavily praising his offensive line, fullback, coaches and everyone else who has anything to do with his success.

You'll never hear Murray call himself the key to the Dallas Cowboys' playoff hopes, even though it's true.

Yes, the Cowboys will go as Tony Romo goes, and that'll be true as long as he's the franchise quarterback. But guess what? Romo goes a heck of a lot better when he's working with a legitimate running game.

Just look at Romo's numbers in the three games in which Murray has touched the ball at least 20 times. Romo has completed 69.1 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no picks in those contests, including Sunday's beautiful 23-of-26, 270-yard, three-TD performance in a 44-7 blowout of the Buffalo Bills.

Oh, and it's no coincidence that the Cowboys are 3-0 in those games.

"I think it all works together," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We talk all the time about the importance of balance."

That's why a third-round rookie ranks as the second-most important player on an offense that features three recent first-round picks, a future Hall of Fame tight end, a Pro Bowl wide receiver and a $32 million left tackle.

Garrett's talk about being balanced was just talk before Murray's emergence. Garrett had no reason to be confident he could rely on the running game after the Cowboys' 2-3 start. A running back who averages an off-the-charts 8.0 yards per carry as a workhorse over a four-game stretch makes his coach a much smarter man.

The Cowboys heavily committed to the run in three of those four games. The exception was an everything-went-wrong affair in Philadelphia when Garrett had to abandon his game plan after Dallas dug a 21-point hole.

Garrett and owner/general manager Jerry Jones still aren't ready to declare Murray the starter over Felix Jones, who is nearly ready to return from a high ankle sprain. Don't sweat the semantics or politics.

When a running back rushes for a franchise-record 601 yards over four games, his role doesn't get reduced. They'll find work for Fragile Felix, but it'll be as the dynamic change-of-pace back the Cowboys envisioned when they drafted him to complement Marion Barber during the Barbarian days.

Could this be any clearer? Murray has three 100-yard games in the last month. Jones has two in his career. Gee whiz, wonder which guy will be the lead horse.

Maybe the element of surprise had something to do with Murray blowing up for 253 yards in his first game as the guy, breaking Emmitt Smith's franchise record for rushing yards in a game. And it helped that the Cowboys played the Rams.

But two respectable defenses geared up to stop Murray failed in the last two weeks. This has suddenly become an offense that imposes its will on opponents.

"When you can run the ball against eight-man fronts, it puts a dent in the defense," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "It really does. When you have the weapons we have on the outside and at quarterback, it puts a smile on your face knowing that defenses are going to have a tough time if we're playing that way."

Jerry admitted thinking "Detroit, Detroit, Detroit" after the Cowboys built a 21-point halftime lead, a reference to the Cowboys' blown 24-point lead in a stunning loss to the Lions earlier this season. But the Bills never had a chance in this game.

No, Romo didn't blow this one. It's hard for a quarterback to throw picks when he's handing off.

"The best part is to close out games," Romo said when asked about Murray's impact. "You get a lead and you can run the ball like that, games get shortened very quickly."

If Murray stays healthy, the Cowboys are dangerous threats to win the NFC East crown and do some damage in the playoffs. In fact, it's not a stretch to call them favorites in the division, considering the stark differences in the schedules of the Cowboys and one-game-up Giants before those teams meet Dec. 11 at JerryWorld.

Don't worry, Murray's left shoulder is fine after a mini-scare at the end of the first half. Of course, that was evident by watching Murray run hard during the second half, when he gained about half of his 135 yards on 20 carries against the Bills.

Durability concerns caused Murray to slip in the draft, but he insists his body feels fresh after his first month as an NFL workhorse. That's reason to believe the best is to come for the Cowboys.

"The best teams get better over the year," Murray said. "Who's going to get better? Who's going to work hard? We've definitely been doing that over the last couple of weeks."

The Cowboys got much better the moment Murray's role got bigger.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.