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Patriots-Cowboys has much hype to live up to

IRVING, Texas -- Excuse Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for wondering what all the fuss is about.

Sure, they find it interesting their game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys is just the fifth in NFL history between unbeaten teams with at least five wins. However, they were part of the last such meeting.

The Patriots also can appreciate all the star power that will be on display: Brady and Randy Moss on their side, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens on the other, both at the top of the NFL scoring list.

I'm expecting the "Game of the Year" to live up to every inch of its hype.

I'm expecting a close, competitive, down-to-the-wire battle between the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. I'm expecting impressive displays of offense (where the Cowboys and Patriots rank first and second in the NFL, respectively) and defense (where the Patriots and Cowboys rank second and eighth in the league, respectively).

I'm expecting the Patriots to play every bit as well as they have in dominating all of their first five opponents.

I'm expecting the Cowboys to play much better than they did in stealing a 25-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football.

I'm expecting the Patriots to win. **More ...**

But, c'mon. This is October. The Red Sox play meaningful, historic games this time of year, not the Patriots. The only dates circled on New England's calendar are the trip to Indianapolis in three weeks and an expected trip to Arizona in February.

"It's another regular-season game for us and there have been a lot of big games around here," Brady said. "I don't think we're building this to anything more than it really is, which is another game on our schedule. It's another game that we're hoping to play our best and make improvements."

That's certainly not the perspective in Dallas.

From players to fans, anyone aligned with the Cowboys sees this as a tantalizing matchup, a chance to show that "America's Team" is headed back to the top. With Romo leading them to their best start since 1983, this game should show whether they're as good as they think they are.

Even impartial observers are calling this a possible Super Bowl preview. If nothing else, it will show how the NFC's best stacks up against one of the AFC's big boys.

"This is one of those games you dream about," Dallas linebacker Bradie James said. "To get to where those guys have been, we've got to beat these guys, the guys who are considered the best."

This is easily the Cowboys' most anticipated regular-season game at Texas Stadium since 1995, when the San Francisco 49ers visited in a matchup of teams that had met in the previous three NFC title games and combined to win the last three Super Bowls. San Francisco won that game; Dallas went on to win that season's Super Bowl.

Cowboys home games are known for the hole in the roof and the cheerleaders, not for boisterous fans. But the parking lot will open six hours before kickoff and the turnstiles three hours early, obvious invitations for folks to get into the spirit -- and into the liquid spirits -- in plenty of time to create an atmosphere that lives up to the caliber of these teams.

"This is why you work so hard, why you do all the things you do in the off-season, to get to this point so you can play in big games," Romo said. "That's what makes it fun. It will be a really enjoyable experience either way."

Romo and Brady are an interesting pair.

Draft-day afterthoughts who had to work their way up the pecking order, both ousted Drew Bledsoe to get their job and have never looked back. Both also will be marking statistical milestones Sunday: regular-season start No. 100 for Brady, No. 16 for Romo, marking the equivalent of his first full season.

Since Romo's ascent this time last year, he's thrown for the most yards in the NFL. He has the second-most TD passes, one behind Brady. Throw in the celebrity status that Brady has and Romo is fast approaching, and it's surprising they hardly know each other, having met briefly this past off-season.

"It wasn't a big thing," Romo said. "It was just normal, two guys talking."

Another similarity is the defensive challenge the quarterbacks are about to face.

Knowing New England coach Bill Belichick's reputation for designing confusing schemes, Romo spent the week plotting how he can avoid getting fooled. Playing such mind games could be risky for a guy who threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in his last outing.

Now football gives us its "Fall Classic," the unbeaten New England Patriots and the unbeaten Dallas Cowboys, in a matchup made for these times.

It's the biggest regular season game in a day and age when, thanks to sports talk radio, the Internet and networks such as this one, every news story becomes bigger than the next. **More ...**

Brady is leery because he's struggled the two times he's faced a defense run by Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, completing only 54 percent of his passes with four interceptions and three touchdowns. Brady, however, still managed to lead the Pats past Phillips and the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs last season.

Phillips' unit isn't as ferocious as the one he left behind, but the Cowboys are getting there. The defense has given up only a field goal over the last two games and only one touchdown in three games.

The flip side is that Brady's supporting cast is better this season, starting with Moss - the guy Owens had in mind when he offered his version of "no comment" about this game, a sign taped to his locker that mentioned "the original 81 and the other 81."

T.O., of course, considers himself the original, and only partly because he wore the number first.

Owens leads Moss 2-1 in head-to-head meetings, but Moss had the most spectacular performance, a 172-yard, three-touchdown show for Minnesota in 2003 that left Owens muttering, "He's the best." Moss has plenty more highlight clips from games against the Cowboys, especially at Texas Stadium.

Moss is coming off his first game without a touchdown or 100 yards, but Owens has only five catches for 58 yards over the last two games. Owens has gone three straight without a touchdown. If the Cowboys hadn't pulled out an amazing finish Monday night in Buffalo, his drops of some key passes would be a bigger story this week.

"He's going to be very motivated," tight end Jason Witten said. "He wants to be the best on the field at all times. Obviously he's got a huge challenge this week. We're going to need him to play big and come alive."

Slowing Moss will be especially tough for a banged-up Dallas secondary. Terence Newman has the speed, but he's nursing foot and knee injuries. Anthony Henry has the size, but he missed the last game with a high ankle sprain and isn't expected to play.

From quarterbacks to receivers, coaches to even the owners (Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, each with three Super Bowls and hoping for a fourth this season), everyone has bragging rights on the line Sunday.

Oddsmakers are leaning toward New England. History leans toward Dallas, as the home team is 3-0-1 in previous matchups of teams 5-0 or better.

Like Owens said in the postscript on his sign, "Getcha popcorn ready."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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