Defense the shining star in Dallas

IRVING, Texas -- Having delivered the first notable hit Sunday afternoon for a Cowboys defense that kept authoring monumental plays in a 21-14 upset of the previously undefeated Colts, inside linebacker Bradie James offered a final parting shot as he exited the locker room at Texas Stadium.

"Everybody that plays the Colts says, 'Hey, they can be had,' you know?" said James, who registered seven tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a performance for a defense that quickly is emerging as one of the NFL's best young units. "But we are the only team that went out and beat the so-called 'beatable' unbeaten Colts. So what's that say about us? Well, it kind of lets us know that we ain't too bad, either, huh?"

Indeed, the Cowboys actually might be very good, particularly if this emotional victory blossoms into a seminal moment for a Bill Parcells outfit whose calling card had been a maddening lack of consistency.

Despite its rocky moments and a switch at starting quarterback that could have created upheaval, Dallas is 6-4. The Cowboys have won three of four since untested Tony Romo replaced immobile Drew Bledsoe. The lone defeat was an improbable 22-19 loss at Washington on Nov. 5, when a dubious face mask penalty permitted the Redskins to kick a winning field goal after time had expired in regulation.

If the division-leading New York Giants and rest of the NFC dare sneak a peek in the rearview mirror, they'll discover the object rapidly gaining ground on them is the resurgent Cowboys. New York is 6-3 going into Monday night's game in Jacksonville, and another slip by the crippled Giants, who are without four defensive starters and left offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, will permit the Cowboys to pull even in the division.

"You can bet," said Dallas nose tackle Jason Ferguson, "that we'll all be watching on Monday night."

The rest of the conference also might want to cast a wary gaze in the Cowboys' direction.

Since supplanting a struggling Bledsoe at halftime of an ugly Oct. 23 loss to the Giants here, Romo, who had zero pass attempts in his first three seasons, has played well and provided the offense a boost. On Sunday, he completed 19 of 23 passes for 226 yards, with one interception and a passer efficiency rating of 89.5. One local television reporter actually had the temerity to suggest to Dallas owner Jerry Jones that the Cowboys youngster had "outdueled" Indianapolis star Peyton Manning.

The last time we checked, neither of the quarterbacks was playing defensive back against the other, so there was no mano a mano competition. Too bad for Manning because he would have fared a lot better had he been throwing against Romo in the Cowboys' secondary.

Taking nothing from Romo or any of the other players who starred offensively for the Cowboys, but this was a victory earned on defense.

And if the Cowboys are to keep Parcells from suffering the first three-season playoff drought of what figures to be a Hall of Fame career, it almost certainly will be Dallas' defense that shows the way.

It has taken Parcells three years and some terrific draft bounties to finally assemble the talent necessary to play the 3-4 alignment he prefers. Jones has broken out the checkbook on occasion to sign veteran free agents such as Ferguson, cornerback Anthony Henry and linebacker Akin Ayodele. But this has been a refurbishing fashioned with crafty draft work. The result: A young, aggressive, athletic unit that has pieces in place to be good for a long time.

"I think what we had here today was a substantiation of the investment in and commitment to defense," Jones said. "It took a while, but we've got the kind of people now that we need to play the kind of defense that [Parcells] wants. We've been good in the draft and a little lucky, too, with guys like [end] Chris Canty ... but it's all come together."

Of the Cowboys' 11 starters, seven arrived in the past five drafts. But it was the 2005 bounty that dramatically changed the complexion and alignment of Dallas' defense. That draft produced Canty and fellow starting end Marcus Spears, a prototype hybrid "edge" player in linebacker Demarcus Ware, and key backup linebacker Kevin Burnett, who had a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown Sunday.

"I think we're all aggressive, athletic-type guys," said Ware, who had four tackles, a sack, two hurries, a pass deflection and a forced fumble and was all but unblockable at times. "That's what it takes to play this defense. And we played it about as well as we could today. I thought we set the tone early."

Early as in the Colts' first snap from scrimmage. It was James who buried tailback Dominic Rhodes for a 5-yard loss. In the first two Indianapolis possessions alone, James collected two tackles, including one for a loss, a forced fumble and a recovery.

"We had to knock [the Colts' offense] off the field early," said strong safety Roy Williams, who blunted one Indianapolis drive by shoving tight end Dallas Clark to the turf, then intercepting a Manning pass on a third-and-goal play from Dallas' 4-yard line. "You can't let them get untracked. We were able to put some doubts in them early, to get Peyton a little frustrated, and that set the tone."

Manning, who had thrown 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions on third down in the Colts' first nine games, had two third-down pickoffs. Harassed much of the game, notably from the outside by Ware, he was sacked twice and fumbled twice, losing one. Indianapolis (9-1), which suffered only eight takeaways in its first nine games, had four turnovers.

And with the Colts at Dallas' 8-yard line and about three minutes remaining, Manning uncharacteristically failed to get Indianapolis into the end zone for the tying score, misfiring on third and fourth down, when the Cowboys again surrounded Clark.

The Cowboys correctly ascertained during the week that Indianapolis' offense sometimes has problems against a 3-4 front. Ware studied the Indianapolis-San Diego meetings of the past two years and Pittsburgh's victory over the Colts in a 2005 divisional-round playoff contest. The Chargers and Steelers deploy a 3-4 front and, as Ware noted, the Colts have had problems blocking pass-rushers off the edge against those defenses.

One of the goals, beyond pressuring Manning in general, was to keep him from stepping forward in the pocket. Mission accomplished, as the Dallas pass rush consistently had Manning back on his heels.

"I think we were in a little bit of a panic mode on offense," Colts coach Tony Dungy conceded. "They've got some good, physical guys. They did a good job today. I think we got a little mentally frazzled and we fell apart."

More accurately, the Colts' offense was separated from its norm by a Dallas defense that, despite entering the game ranked No. 3 in the NFL, was hovering a little beneath the radar. Sunday's victory, broadcast to 97 percent of the country, should remove some of the anonymity from a unit that could make the Cowboys a team to watch closely.

"If we go out and keep taking care of business and not slip back like we have at times in the past," James said, "we can be special. This is a great win. It makes a statement about us, where we can go and what we can do. But if we lay an egg on Thanksgiving [against Tampa Bay], then it doesn't mean squat. It's just a quick memory, that's all, and we want it to be more than that.

"We want it to be the win that [catapults] us into being a big-time contender because all of us feel like that's exactly what we are now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.