IRVING, Texas (AP) -A large painting of Tony Romo was leaning against a desk in the executive offices of the Dallas Cowboys late last week, waiting to be hung. That's not much of a surprise considering all the thrills he's provided.
Here's the surprising part: When the Cowboys play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday, Romo will be making only his 16th career start, which means he'll be capping the equivalent of his first full season in charge.
Romo has gone 11-4 so far, securing himself so closely alongside Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach in the team's record book that his image might as well join them on the boss' wall.
``He's our magic man,'' linebacker Bradie James said.
The best part about that quote is that James said it weeks ago - before Romo ran backward 33 yards to retrieve a loose snap, then ran forward 37 yards for a first down in a victory over St. Louis; and before he overcame six turnovers of his own doing to pull out a 25-24 victory over Buffalo on Monday night.
Now Dallas is 5-0 for the first time since 1983.
For his next trick, Romo will try leading the Cowboys past Brady and the undefeated high-riding Patriots.
``It'll be a great challenge for us,'' Romo said Wednesday. ``But we can play pretty good every once in a while, too.''
Lines like that show the personality and attitude that make Romo so popular with his teammates. Call it moxie, chutzpah or the ``it'' factor, Romo exudes it. Plus, he backs it up with results.
Since last Oct. 29, when Romo made his first start, he's thrown for more yards and more yards per attempt than any quarterback in the NFL, and the Cowboys have scored the most points. Brady has thrown the most touchdowns, but Romo is only one behind.
Romo is also one behind in interceptions, but that figure is skewed by his five-pickoff performance against the Bills. As bad as that was - and it was really ugly, with four INTs by halftime and two of those getting returned for touchdowns - Romo still managed to rally the Cowboys.
``At the end there he goes 11-for-13 and takes us on a drive to score,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ``To me, that shows a lot about the way he plays, the way he competes and the way he thinks. He doesn't let things rattle him. That's why I think he's going to be able to move on and play well this week.''
Romo finished the Bills game with more than 300 yards, marking his seventh such game overall and fourth this season. He's already tied with Don Meredith for third on the club's career list and he's set the single-season record with 11 games left to play.
Here are a few more nuggets that make it hard to believe this guy wasn't drafted and spent his first 3 1/2 years backing up washouts like Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson and has-beens like Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe:
-Romo's first pass was Oct. 15, 2006, and he completed it for 33 yards; his second throw was a touchdown to Terrell Owens. A week later, he replaced Bledsoe at halftime of a Monday night game, then made his first start the following week. He led Dallas to a club-record 25 fourth-quarter points and a comeback win at Carolina.
-He was the NFC offensive player of the week twice in three weeks, the lone exception being when the Cowboys knocked off Peyton Manning and the Super Bowl-champion-to-be Colts when they were 9-0. He also wound up the player of the month his first full month in charge.
-He played in the Pro Bowl before he played in a September game. Then, in his first September, he was named the conference's offensive player of the month.
Of course, all these highlights get a giant asterisk because of what Romo did in the most important game of his career, the playoffs in Seattle. His numbers were weak, but the Cowboys still had a chance to win with a late field goal. Romo bobbled the hold, was stopped short on a mad-dash run for a first down and bawled afterward, feeling awful for the loss that sent his teammates into the offseason and, ultimately, coach Bill Parcells into retirement.
Still, factor that in and he's 11-5.
Romo either will be 11-5 or 12-4 after his 16th regular-season start. Compared to the first full-season equivalent of some notable quarterbacks, he falls just shy of Staubach and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (15-1 each) and Brady (13-3), but well ahead of his boyhood hero Brett Favre (9-7), Manning (3-13) and Aikman (2-14).
Sure, there are a lot more factors to a team's success than what a quarterback can or can't do.
However, after nearly a full season of Romo-mania, the Cowboys are pleased to know they have the heir to Aikman team owner Jerry Jones has sought since 2000.
The better Romo plays, the higher the price for the contract Romo is due next summer. There already have been talks with his agent, Tom Condon.
If Jones doesn't have Condon on speed dial by now, then he certainly has the number in an easy-to-find place.
Like maybe right beneath the newest painting hanging on his wall ... the one showing No. 9 on the move.

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