IRVING, Texas (AP) — Tony Romo threw 13 interceptions in the first seven games and has just two since. He was booed lustily in two mistake-filled home losses, then broke Troy Aikman's franchise record for touchdowns in the most efficient outing of his career.
The Dallas quarterback has used phrases such as "exhausting my brain" while the Cowboys have lived on the edge of the playoff chase, and their penchant for falling behind looked like it might wear out his right arm.
Romo won't call this up-and-down grind tougher than any other in six years of trying to get the Cowboys even remotely close to a Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season. It sure looks like it, though — even sounds like it.
"I constantly analyze what our team needs or what can help our football team, what we may need to change to help what or who we are and what this team needs to do to get better," said Romo, who is a year away from the end of his contract and now the married father of an 8-month old boy. "That's always in my brain. How can I do it? How can I help others? You think about it constantly."
Because of the games and throws that got away, the Cowboys (6-6) may not survive another loss as they begin the final quarter of the season Sunday at Cincinnati (7-5). Dallas hasn't reached the postseason since 2009, when Romo had his only playoff victory and just the second for the Cowboys since their last Super Bowl win.
If the Cowboys are going anywhere, Romo will probably have to be the one leading them. One of his classic scrambles and completions was the most important play in a win over Philadelphia that started the current 3-1 stretch. The injury-depleted Dallas defense couldn't stop the Eagles in the rematch, but Romo kept pace until a big defensive touchdown gave the Cowboys a cushion.
One of Romo's two interceptions in the past five games helped Washington take a 28-3 halftime lead on Thanksgiving, but he came back with three second-half touchdowns and had the Cowboys within seven when a defensive letdown put the Redskins back in control.
In the second halves of his past two games, Romo has thrown for 513 yards and six touchdowns with one interception, and he now has 168 career TDs, three more than Aikman, a three-time Super Bowl winner.
"I think more than anything else, he's taking care of the ball and still making plays," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. "When Tony's playing his best, he's able to do that. We never want to stifle him, but we believe that he can play the way he plays and still minimize the bad plays."
The turnovers are down even though defenses targeted Romo while not having to worry as much about a compromised Dallas running attack. DeMarco Murray missed six games with a sprained right foot, and the Cowboys rushed for more than 100 yards just once without him.
Murray's first play back Sunday against Philadelphia snapped a streak of 52 straight snaps where Romo didn't hand off, and he carried for 14 yards. Murray ended up getting the ball the first three Dallas plays and finished with 23 carries for 83 yards. Oh, and the Cowboys rushed for 100 yards again — and would have approached 150 if not for a couple of fluky negative plays.
It may not be a coincidence that with Murray behind him again, Romo was 10 of 10 in the second half of a 38-33 win over the Eagles. Plus, he didn't have to throw as much. He was 22 of 27 after tossing 112 passes in a span of five days.
"He's a smart quarterback," Murray said. "You definitely have to have your 'A' game with him because there are times he's calling the play and he'll change it up to another play, a different protection he wants you to stay in. So you definitely have to know what you're doing when you're out there with him."
The Cowboys have had injury issues in the offensive line all season, and while the number of sacks on Romo isn't overwhelming — 28, or slightly more than two per game — he has been on the run and knocked down a lot. Romo was sacked a career-high seven times against Cleveland, but still led a tying drive in the final minute of regulation in the 23-20 overtime win. He threw for 257 yards on 50 attempts without an interception.
With Murray back and the offensive line as healthy as it's going to get, Romo's ride to a possible playoff berth could be steadier if nothing else. "We're lucky to have him as our quarterback," tight end Jason Witten said. "He gives us an advantage anytime we go out there."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lschuylerd