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Will Cowboys' Tony Romo finally join elite quarterbacks?

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo leaves the field

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo leaves the field after a win over the Seattle Seahawks 30-23 at CenturyLink Field on October 12, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Let's be clear.

The Cowboys won the NFC East. The Cowboys are in the playoffs. The Cowboys are the No. 3 seed and hosting the No. 6 Lions in Sunday's NFC wild-card game with their souped-up running game and their remanufactured defense.

But if they fail to advance deep into the tournament, maybe if they fail to reach the Super Bowl, it won't be the legacy of the Cowboys that will be tarnished, nor will it be the Cowboys who are blamed for being unable to win on the big stage.

This isn't a referendum on a franchise.

No. All of that will go on Tony Romo.

It's not fair, but it is the most compelling narrative of this weekend and maybe this month.

Romo hadn't been to the postseason since the 2009 season and has won only one playoff game in four chances during what otherwise should be considered a Hall of Fame career.

At age 34, these playoffs sure seem like Romo's reckoning.

Don't think so? Let's ask the boss.

"If you don't get in those big games and you don't get a chance to compete and win one," Jerry Jones said of the Super Bowl, "that goes with you."

Romo already has shed some of the Romo-ness that football fans have come to expect over the years. This December, a month that usually haunts him (he was 11-17 during the month before this season), he threw 12 touchdown passes and one interception while the Cowboys went 4-0 and won the division for the first time since 2009. Romo's passer rating of 133.7 was the highest among any quarterback in NFL history with at least 100 attempts in December. His 113.2 mark for the season led the league.

That's nice. But all it means is he'll be heading to Arizona in a few weeks one way (as a Super Bowl quarterback) or another (as a Pro Bowler).

He's still Tony Romo, and the football world seems to be in constant anticipation of his failures. Now that it's playoff time, and the Cowboys seem to have a chance to make some noise, that anticipation will swell to a point at which it might not even fit inside colossal AT&T Stadium.

Of the six highest-rated quarterbacks in the NFL this season -- Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees -- only Romo hasn't won a Super Bowl. Only Romo has never played in a Super Bowl.

"Our 2009 team, our 2007 team, we missed big-time opportunities there with Tony Romo," Jones said. "You've got to get them. When it comes up and you've got a chance to get them, you've just got to take advantage of them."

Maybe this is the year Romo will. If he does, his whole career will take on a new light. All of those passing yards and touchdown passes suddenly can be compared to other greats of this era and others without an asterisk or a cockeyed glance.

Being the best quarterback to never reach a Super Bowl is not something Romo wants as part of his legacy.

"I think that's the only reason you play the game," he said of winning it all. "As players, we all want to be playing in that game and holding that trophy at the end of the year, just hoist it up and know that you accomplished your goal that you set out. I know that's my goal. I mean, everything else is just peanuts compared to it."

Until he does it, though, there is a void. No matter what else he accomplishes.

"Frankly, I don't know how you could have any more appreciation, and I say that in a positive way, for what he is as a quarterback without having actually played in and competed within a Super Bowl," Jones said. "The credit that he really should receive will have to come at the point when he's playing in a big game. The big game. The Super Bowl."

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