SCHUYLER DIXON, AP Sports Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) – Tony Romo still talks about wishing he had been on the field instead of at home following back surgery when the Cowboys lost a playoffs-or-bust finale to Philadelphia last season.
Eleven months and yet another back injury later, the Dallas quarterback will be out there Thursday against Mark Sanchez when the NFC East rivals play on Thanksgiving for the first time in 25 years with the division lead on the line.
No postseason fates will be sealed this time.
Instead, a pair of 8-3 teams in good playoff position at the moment will play the first of two games against each other just 18 days apart.
“I don’t think you’re going to decide the division right here,” Romo said. “But we also understand the importance of it.”
Romo will see how his back responds to the first quick turnaround since surgery for a herniated disk last December, followed by two small fractures in his back sustained last month on a sack against Washington. The Cowboys will kick off about 90 hours after Romo rallied them past the New York Giants, 31-28, with a late touchdown pass to Dez Bryant.
The 34-year-old Romo has 22 touchdowns and three interceptions since throwing three interceptions in the first half of the opener against San Francisco. He’s had a quarterback rating of at least 135 in three of the past four games.
“He doesn’t look like he has any back issues,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said.
For Sanchez, the question is more about rust than rest. After missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, he will make his fourth start since Nick Foles went down with a broken collarbone. Sanchez has 985 yards passing and five touchdowns with four interceptions in three starts. In his four games, he’s already matched Romo’s interception total of six.
“The one thing with Mark that I think everybody forgets is he missed an entire year last year, and he’s only played 3½ games for us so far this year,” Kelly said. “There’s still a growing process for him within our system.”
Here are some things to consider in Sanchez’s second career start against Dallas. He beat the Cowboys when he was with the New York Jets three years ago:
TIME FOR ROMO: The signature play of Dallas’ win at New York was Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s spectacular one-handed catch for a touchdown that will go down as one of the league’s best. The signature moments for the Cowboys were Romo having more than 6 seconds to throw without scrambling twice on the winning drive, including the 13-yard score to Bryant with 1:01 remaining.
“It’s a huge challenge because you have to know not only what the original route was that your receivers are running, but what they’re going to do after Tony bides time for himself,” Kelly said. “He has a unique sense in terms of if there’s an unblocked guy, he just has a way of making him miss, but he’s not looking to run. He’s looking to throw the ball down the field, which is dangerous.”
RB SHOWDOWN: NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray will try for his 11th 100-yard game of the season for the Cowboys. He has a good chance to replace Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy as the league rushing champ. Murray has 1,354 yards, while McCoy is fourth at 859 after a slow start. “I think the way he finishes runs and how strong he is, that’s what makes him an elite back,” McCoy said. “I think we have different styles, so I wouldn’t want to take anything from his game.”
KELLY ON THANKSGIVING: Asked about playing the holiday game, Kelly drew laughs by saying, “Played in high school on Thanksgiving, so it’s been awhile.” Pushed a little more, Kelly wasn’t interested. “We don’t really read much into it or wax nostalgic,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to have a cornucopia and a turkey on the sideline. We’re just going to go play football.”
BREAKING THE RUT: With a win, the Cowboys will break their three-year rut of 8-8 finishes, and take a big step closer to ending a four-year playoff drought. Their previous winning record came in 2009, when they beat Philadelphia in the playoffs for their only postseason win since 1997. “I just feel like our record is 0-0 and we’re trying to go get a win,” Romo said.
DO IT AGAIN: The division race has the feel of a championship series with these teams playing twice in three weeks. Dallas plays another Thursday game next week at Chicago, then gets a longer break before going to Philadelphia. The Eagles have a mini-bye before hosting Seattle and Dallas in consecutive weeks. “Yeah, it is a little weird,” McCoy said. “But we’ll play them anywhere. I’m sure they feel the same way.”