Cowboys have reason to be confident

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Maybe the Dallas Cowboys' December demons were nothing but a figment of the media's imagination all along.

They certainly seemed real on Dec. 13, 2009, when the San Diego Chargers won at Cowboys Stadium. It was the Cowboys' second straight loss -- and the fifth in their past 17 post-Thanksgiving games with Tony Romo as quarterback, including the playoffs -- providing the familiar feeling of a season slipping away.

That feeling changed suddenly six days later, when the Cowboys stunned the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, a night made unforgettable by DeMarcus Ware's two-strip-sack performance less than a week after leaving the field on a stretcher with a neck injury.

That laid the foundation for the Cowboys, who won the next two weeks to claim the NFC East crown, to finish a regular season strong for the first time in more than a decade. Not coincidentally, Dallas' dozen-year playoff win drought ended in the wild-card round. (It also saved Wade Phillips' job, at least for a little while, but let's try to focus on the positive.)

All things considered, the Cowboys couldn't ask for a better situation as this December nears. They're in the driver's seat of the division after a four-game winning streak vaulted them to the top of the NFC East standings. Avoid the December doldrums and the Cowboys will get to open the playoffs in their $1.2 billion football palace.

So what if the Cowboys just feasted on a soft stretch of schedule that concludes with next week's road trip to Arizona? That's fine. They'll have ample opportunity to prove they're for real when they face the New York Giants twice and the Philadelphia Eagles once over the course of the final four games.

Coach Jason Garrett makes sure the Cowboys view things with boring ol' one-week-at-a-time blinders, but when they peek at the bigger picture there is good reason for confidence. Some of that stems from their success two winters ago.

"The competition gets a little bit tougher," tight end Jason Witten said. "There's a different mentality. But I think the guys in this room, a core group of us have been through that experience. There's nothing like experience. We'll get our team ready and play our best football moving forward."

OK, not every veteran in the locker room buys the theory about the end of the 2009 season benefiting the current Cowboys.

"I honestly don't even remember what happened in '09," said cornerback Terence Newman, who joins Witten, Romo and Bradie James as the current longest-tenured Cowboys.

Newman, however, agrees with Witten that there's nothing like experience to prepare a team for a playoff run. It's just that, in Newman's opinion, it's much more recent experience that matters.

"The biggest thing is to take some of our miscues from earlier in the season when we lost these kinds of [close] football games and use them to our advantage," Newman said after Thursday's 20-19 win over the Miami Dolphins. "I think we did the last two weeks. That being said, I think down the line, having won games like this is definitely going to be important. It definitely gives our team a little confidence that if we're in a close game, we're the team that's going to win the football game."

Romo has talked since the first day of training camp about the Cowboys getting better as the season progresses. He essentially promised that they would be harder to beat in December than September.

It appears that Romo was right, although he probably didn't anticipate that rookie running back DeMarco Murray and off-the-street receiver Laurent Robinson would be the primary reasons for the Cowboys' improvement. Of course, it helps that Mr. November is completely recovered from the fractured rib he suffered in Week 2, which is a factor in the Cowboys' franchise quarterback playing perhaps as well as he has in his career.

The Cowboys should have two other key cogs -- cornerback Mike Jenkins and receiver Miles Austin -- back at least by the time the Giants come to JerryWorld on Dec. 11. There's no excuse for the Cowboys to fade at the finish.

If the December demons actually existed, they were exorcised a couple of years ago.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.