IRVING, Texas - For those who pooh-poohed the notion of the importance of winning football games in December, do you get it now?

You should.

When you win games in December, good things such as earning a playoff berth and having the opportunity to win a divisional title and host a home playoff game inevitably happen.

The final regular-season game will afford the Cowboys a chance to erase some of the stench from the most gutless performance in franchise history - a 44-6 loss to the Eagles last season with a playoff spot at stake - by beating the Eagles on Sunday and winning their second NFC East title in three seasons.

Do that, and there's a good chance the Cowboys will play the Eagles on consecutive weekends, which would mean beating the Eagles three times this season to advance.

Who cares? There's no law that says it can't be done.

Besides, the Cowboys are playing their best football right now, which coincides with Tony Romo playing the best football of his career. Romo has had gaudier numbers, but that Romo often played out of control, following great plays with dumb ones.

Not anymore.

After Romo threw three interceptions in a loss to the Giants in Week 2, I wrote that we'd know by the end of the season whether Romo is destined to be a star, a solid starter, or a coach-killer who was the ultimate tease.

Well, Romo is certainly playing like a star, and he's doing it in December, when the pressure intensifies. He has seven touchdowns and one interception this month, while throwing for an average of 309.8 yards per game.

It was impossible to ignore the Cowboys' 18-32 record after Dec. 1 entering this season - the mark they have compiled since their last playoff win in 1996 - just like it was impossible to ignore Romo's 5-9 record after Dec. 1 with 14 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

After all, the best quarterbacks tend to play their best football this month.

The reason the Cowboys have overcome losses to the New York Giants and San Diego to start December is that Romo has embraced the pressure that accompanies this month.

He played well in both losses, and in the Cowboys' upset win over New Orleans, he was sensational, outplaying Drew Brees by a wide margin. Now, he needs to outplay Donovan McNabb.

The NFC is now wide open.

New Orleans and Minnesota have been exposed as good but flawed teams the last few weeks. There's no team in the NFC substantially better than the Cowboys, and their wins at Philadelphia and New Orleans prove Dallas is capable of beating any NFC contender.

It starts with Romo.

He vowed to be more diligent about protecting the ball this season by keeping two hands on it when he's in the pocket to avoid fumbling, and to also reduce his bad decisions.

He's kept his word.

Romo had a streak of 167 passes without an interception end Sunday against Washington on a deflected pass. Earlier this season, he threw 142 passes without an interception.

He hasn't thrown more than one interception in a game since tossing three against the Giants in Week 2. He's lost just four fumbles after losing seven last year.

Now, he's been sacked a career-high 32 times, and his completion percentage of 62.8 percent isn't great in a league where the top passers complete about 65 percent of their passes.

Those, however, are indicators that Romo has finally realized a sack is better than a harried throw into coverage, and that it's OK to place a ball where only his receiver can get it.

If it winds up incomplete, then so be it.

Romo showed that control Sunday on his 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams that gave the Cowboys a 7-0 lead against Washington.

As the protection broke down, Romo stepped up in the pocket and started to run. Then he stopped and lofted a perfect pass over a defender's outstretched arms to Williams, who grabbed it in the corner of the end zone.

This is the new Romo, a player in complete control of his game. That makes the Cowboys dangerous.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.