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For Cowboys, NFC East title not the top item on their wish list

IRVING, Texas -- With another great escape on the road, the Dallas Cowboys finally clinched their first NFC East title since Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were still playing together.

After their division-clinching victory at Detroit, where Jason Witten's winning touchdown with 18 seconds left gave the Cowboys (12-1) their only lead, players donned championship T-shirts and caps.

On Monday, they put on Santa hats for holiday visits to children in the hospital. Then it was back to work at Valley Ranch, meeting with coach Wade Phillips and watching film to start getting ready for this week's game against Philadelphia.

Winning its first division title since 1998 isn't the top item on this team's wish list.

"As soon as we got those (NFC East champion) hats, Wade was saying home field, and there's so much more," Witten said.

"We still have more to accomplish. It's a stepping stone of what we've wanted to do from the start of the season," linebacker Akin Ayodele said. "For us, we can cross out one of our goals, and we can move on to the next."

Dallas can clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory Sunday in its regular-season home finale, or if Seattle losses at Carolina. Combine a Cowboys victory with a loss by Green Bay to St. Louis, and Dallas is guaranteed home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs.

While the Cowboys are already assured of playing at least one home playoff game, they are undefeated on the road. They have won nine straight regular-season games away from Texas Stadium, one shy of the team record set in 1969.

Their six road wins this season include that Monday night game at Buffalo nine weeks ago, when the Cowboys scored nine points in the final 20 seconds. They never led until rookie Nick Folk's game-winning 53-yard field goal on the last play of the game.

Then on Sunday, Detroit led 10-0 in the first quarter and 27-14 starting the fourth before the Cowboys pulled off another escape act.

"They definitely gave us their best shot, so we had to find answers in the end, and we did," center Andre Gurode said.

After Dallas cut it to 27-21 on Marion Barber's third touchdown, Jason Hanson missed a 35-yard field goal for the Lions. Witten then fumbled inside the Lions 1, but after forcing a punt, Dallas got the ball back at its 17 with 2:15 and no timeouts left.

"Although it wasn't our best game, there's something to be said for the way we played and we came back and we won," Witten said. "Wade said early in the year, we're not going to apologize for the wins we get around here."

Or as Tony Romo said, "I'm sorry that I'm not sorry. It's about winning."

Witten's game-winning catch over the middle more than made up for the fumble and let him enjoy his record game. His 15 catches set a Cowboys record for any receiver and matched the NFL mark for tight ends.

Still, most important for Witten was winning the game and clinching the division title.

"We've been waiting a long time to get a chance to get this, to finally experience that and kind of see the tide's turning a little bit," said Witten, who is in his fifth season. "The only problem is you're thinking so much more down the road. It's kind of bittersweet because you're thinking so much more beyond that."

Yes, the Super Bowl and a possible rematch with still-undefeated New England, the only team to beat the Cowboys this season.

Phillips insisted Monday that he only discusses with his players what's immediately ahead of them. But he knows they are aware of much more than that.

"I tell them what the next game will be like. I did last week, 'We win the division and we get a home game,"' Phillips said. "This week, I told them we gain a bye if we win. Yeah, they hear the other stuff."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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