Ever have a rib injury where it is so hard to breathe that each time you do, it hurts? Imagine having a hard time breathing and then trying to raise your arm above your head to throw the football. The pain is beyond belief. Welcome to Tony Romo's world Sunday in San Francisco.
Last week, Romo was under intense criticism for making some really bad plays in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys' loss to the Jets. Admittedly, Romo made critical mistakes that cost the Cowboys, but without him, Dallas is a team in transition. The truth is Romo has to play perfect or else the Cowboys won't win. For all the Cowboys fans who think they would be better off without Romo, face reality: He is the only reason Dallas has a chance to compete in the NFC East.
The Cowboys are extremely limited in many areas, some due to injuries and some due to a lack of overall talent in key places. On defense, their secondary has suffered some tough injuries, especially at corner, but even if Terence Newman was out there, the secondary would be suspect. They have a dominating pass rusher in LB DeMarcus Ware, who can cover up for an inadequate secondary with his ability, but the other three linebackers are limited. Their defensive line is average at best, and lacks depth.
On offense, the line is breaking in three new starters, including a rookie at right tackle. Their wideout group has a great player in Miles Austin, a great talent in Dez Bryant but not much more. And their featured back, Felix Jones, has ability but lacks the durability to be a full-time player and has already suffered another injury that will limit his availability.
Yet, when Romo plays well, the Cowboys can compete. He allows them to be a team in transition but still capable of winning; that is hard to do in the league. Without Romo playing well, the Cowboys are a 7-9 team at best.
Romo was amazing in the Cowboys' 27-24 overtime win over the Niners. With each breath, you could feel his pain. Even though he probably had a pain-killing injection to ease the discomfort, rib injuries hurt no matter how much Novocain is used. Romo had the look of determination to will his team to victory, erasing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. It wasn't all Romo, to be sure; the defense played well, holding the 49ers to 206 total yards. But give Romo credit for making the offensive players around him better. His accuracy and willingness to put the ball into tight windows was sensational. What impressed me the most was his unwillingness to let an injury get in the way of him leading his team.
Romo is such a talented athlete that often the game appears too easy for him. Sometimes, he seems fine with just settling for things -- taking the attitude that he has overcome so many obstacles getting to the NFL that being a starting quarterback is just good enough. But Sunday, Romo had Tom Brady's look of determination. When Romo plays with that sense of commitment combined with his talent, he can do damn near anything on the field. I love watching Romo when he has that look. Now, he needs to do that every week.
Editor's Note: On Monday afternoon, it was reported that Romo played with a punctured lung in Sunday's OT win over the Niners.
Things I loved
» With the Bills down 21-3 at halftime, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick rallied his team to victory by leading touchdown drives on each of the five possessions Buffalo had in the second half. The last drive, the Bills converted on fourth down for the winning score. Fitzpatrick has now played two excellent games and the Bills are 2-0. Even though the Bills probably don't have five players that most of America can name, they play hard, they play tough and they never stop competing. The Bills might not be perfect, but like they did at the end of last season, they will play everyone tough.
» Tom Brady won the MVP last season, leading the Patriots to a 14-2 record, and this year he looks even better. Is that even possible? After throwing for 400-plus yards only once in his previous 143 starts, Brady has gone over 400 in back-to-back starts to open the season (517 and 423). What must be scary to the rest of the NFL is how easy Brady makes it look and how explosive the Patriots have become. Last season, the Chargers held Brady and the Patriots to 179 total yards; last night, the Patriots had more than 500. What a difference a year makes.
» Raheem Morris and the Bucs showed me something Sunday, fighting back from a 17-0 deficit on the road at Minnesota to win the game. The Bucs scored on four of their five second-half possessions, and the only non-score was when Josh Freeman threw an interception in the red zone. Tampa only had three first downs in the first half, but that all changed after halftime. Beginning with the first drive of the second half and then converting an onside kick, the Bucs outplayed the Vikings in every area down the stretch. That was a great team win for the Bucs and a disheartening way for the Vikings to play their home opener.
Things I hated
» I hate seeing injuries and it seems like every time you watch a Chiefs game, they have someone getting seriously hurt. Sunday in Detroit, the Chiefs lost their best offensive player, RB Jamaal Charles, to a season-ending knee injury. He joins their best defensive player, safety Eric Berry, and promising young tight end Tony Moeaki on the sidelines for the remainder of 2011. The Chiefs lacked talent on both sides of the ball before the injuries occurred; now they look like a team without a chance to win more than three games.
» I hate that it's only Week 2 and there already are teams that I have no interest in watching. Seattle has gotten worse from a year ago when it won the NFC West with just a 7-9 record. The Seahawks are a team with no area of strength, and it is only going to get worse. Owner Paul Allen wants to win now, but based on their level of talent, now is at least two years away. I can't stand watching them. I wonder how Allen can?
» I hate watching the Colts struggle in every phase and watching Kerry Collins not being capable of making a play. I love Collins' willingness to try to help the Colts, but I am not sure anyone not named Peyton Manning could help this team win a game. Collins is at the end of his career. It takes him too long to get anything done and when teams attack the pocket, he is too slow to react.
Things on my mind
» Slow down, Cam Newton. The Panthers rookie phenom is just the sixth QB in history with consecutive 400-yard passing games, at any point in his career, and the third to lose both games. Newton will make some mistakes, as he did Sunday against the Packers, but his good plays will far outweigh the bad. He gives the Panthers hope, which is exactly what they needed.
» Philip Rivers and Vincent Jackson were amazing against the Patriots. Rivers was pinpoint accurate and Jackson looked like the second coming of Paul Warfield. Turnovers cost the Chargers the game, but it did not diminish their outstanding play.
» I am not normally a fan of paying running backs huge money, but Bears RB Matt Forte is a vital part of their offense and they cannot be the same team without him. His skills as a receiver/runner fit the Martz system perfectly. Chicago needs to lock up Forte now.
» The Bears won't be consistent on the road until they fix their offensive line. Losing rookie Gabe Carimi (knee) for any extended period will hinder Chicago's ability to get this line playing well away from Soldier Field.
» Matthew Hasselbeck is the perfect quarterback for the Titans, especially when teams take away Chris Johnson. Hasselbeck can make plays in the passing game. Titans WR Kenny Britt is looking more and more like a blue-chipper.
» When the Eagles get the lead, the defense is supposed to dominate by rushing the passer and making plays. But Sunday night, they were unable to protect a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, as the Falcons scored 14 unanswered points and won. The Eagles' defense looks like a work in progress right now. Don't count on them dominating any offense, except when they play Seattle.
» There was good Rex Grossman and bad Rex Grossman playing Sunday, but the good made more plays than the bad and the 'Skins won a nail-biter against the Cardinals. Grossman's touchdown pass to Santana Moss on fourth down was a gusty call and an even gutsier throw.
» The Texans are off to a nice 2-0 start, winning on the road in Miami. Their red zone defense was great, keeping the Dolphins out of the end zone three out of four times. This game was only close entering the fourth quarter because the Texans struggled to score in the red zone. This was a really good road win for the Texans and another painful home loss for the 'Fins, who are now 1-8 at home since last season.
» Let's put on hold all the talk that the Steelers are too old. They dominated the Seahawks in every phase. Yes, the Seahawks are like an expansion team, but the Steelers played well and deserve credit.
» The Lions are for real. Good teams dominate bad teams, and that is what the Lions did Sunday. From the beginning of the game, the Chiefs never had the look of a team that could be in the same class as the Lions.
» The 49ers have to open up their offense. Right now, they are trying to manage the game to victory and keeping Alex Smith from costing them games. In theory, this sounds like a good plan but when they play the better teams they must have a more open passing game or they won't win. Gaining 206 total yards is not going to cut it.
» How can the Ravens look so good last week and so bad Sunday? Easy answer: They did not play with the same intensity or physicality. The Ravens must prove that when teams stop Ray Rice, they still have other play-making options.
» WR Devery Henderson was great for the Saints, as was Drew Brees in orchestrating the offense. However, I am not sold that Mark Ingram can be their short-yardage, goal-line runner. He needs a clear path and does not run with power once he has to re-start.
» The Jets are going to need to find a running game soon. The past two weeks, they have struggled to run the ball, which does not bode well if they want to be a Super Bowl team. Not running the ball on the Jags must concern Rex Ryan and Co.
» The Raiders had issues on defense in the second half, but their offense was tremendous. They might have found the next Cliff Branch and his name is not Darrius Heyward-Bey. Denarius Moore, a fifth-round pick from Tennessee, is the real deal and looks like he can be a legitimate player for the long haul.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi