IRVING, TEXAS — The Dallas Cowboys are the most fascinating team in sports.
That's using the term "team" loosely, because the Cowboys are just as often a gathering of supremely talented individuals, each with his own agenda, publicist and collection of friends circling like satellites.
When the Cowboys actually do bond on the field, they can be dominating. They pounded the New York Giants on Sunday night, sacking Eli Manning eight times and, with a 20-8 victory, put themselves in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth.
But, as is often the case in Dallas, the game was a sideshow. The bigger story afterward was whether Terrell Owens had really griped to coaches about quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten conspiring to freeze him out of the offense.
Blame the media for this if you will -- that's what the Cowboys have done -- but this is a franchise that, top to bottom, craves off-the-field attention.
Compare the Cowboys and New England Patriots.
Patriots: It's standard procedure for Coach Bill Belichick to stand before the team with a stack of newspapers and read aloud selected quotes from his players. He's been known to tear into anyone, especially rookies, who say anything that strays an inch from the colorless one-game-at-a-time talking points.
Cowboys: Owens wore a blinking Rudolph nose when he talked to reporters last week.
This isn't a complaint. The Cowboys are a much more interesting team to cover on a day-to-day basis than the Patriots, or really any other NFL franchise. It's no mystery why NFL Films loved Dallas' opening its doors to the "Hard Knocks" documentary crew.
There's always something going on with the Cowboys. And that's no accident. Owner Jerry Jones markets the team that way, even gravitating to the latest dust-up like a moth to a Rudolph light.
"I've always thought that interest, hyper-interest in what you're doing and your team, does lend itself to increased performance," Jones said. "So there's no doubt in my mind that our team was aware of the media criticism. . . . In my time with the Dallas Cowboys, I've never seen off-the-field controversy be a factor in who won the game. Never seen it."
Maybe that's why the Cowboys didn't flinch recently when oft-suspended cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, fresh off his last-chance reprieve from the league, went through his first practice back with the team wearing pajama pants -- pajama pants! -- under his shorts. The pants were imprinted with a bunch of Homer Simpson faces and the words "I'm so smart."
That came on the Wednesday before a huge game against Pittsburgh -- a game the Cowboys lost -- when Coach Wade Phillips did what other coaches would consider unthinkable and gave his thirtysomething veterans the day off. In terms of preparation, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the busiest days of the NFL week.
That was another mini-controversy and provided Phillps' critics with more ammunition that he's too soft on his players, too mushy to direct a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 1996.
But it was just another day in Dallas, where there's always a story behind the story.
Some of the Cowboys deal with the craziness better than others. For example, Phillips has rabbit ears when it comes to criticism. And who could blame the guy? From every indication, he's just keeping the seat warm until offensive coordinator Jason Garrett gets the job.
Still, the defense-minded Phillips isn't shy about patting himself on the back when he gets the chance. After Sunday night's sack-fest, he said with an I-told-you-so sulkiness in his voice: "We have a good rush. Somebody's going to recognize it sooner or later."
Oh, but people do recognize it. We know how good the Cowboys can be when they play as a team. We know this franchise, if it plays the way it did against the Giants, is perfectly capable of making a serious Super Bowl run.
Grab a silly blinking nose, Wade.
We can't watch all three rings of this circus at once.
Eagles stay aloft
Philadelphia beats Cleveland, 30-10, to sustain its playoff chances. PAGE 5