IRVING, Texas (AP) – For years, Tony Romo's defenders have answered his penchant for costly late-game mistakes with a rhetorical question:
What would the Dallas Cowboys do without him?
It appears they will find out in their fourth playoffs-or-bust season finale against an NFC East rival since 2008 — and their first elimination game without Romo in 10 years.
Dallas hasn't ruled out the star quarterback for Sunday night's game against Philadelphia, but all signs point to Romo's back injury pushing Kyle Orton into the starting role after two years of limited play as the backup.
Surely Orton's name isn't the first that comes to mind for fans wanting a change after years of damaging interceptions, fumbles or, most infamously, the field goal flub when Romo dropped the snap on a kick that could have won his first playoff game in 2006.
Danny White, the last longtime Dallas starter who failed to meet Super Bowl expectations, challenges anyone to come up with a current quarterback who could do better in Romo's situation. And he's not kidding.
"Name whoever you want," said White, who lost three straight NFC championship games in the 1980s and lost his job to Gary Hogeboom. "I don't care if it's Tom Brady, if it's Peyton Manning, if it's Aaron Rodgers. I can make an argument for Tony getting better results than anybody else could get."
Romo has the same support from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on down, which is why the question of whether he's going to play against the Eagles is the hottest topic of the week in the NFL now that the Packers have said Rodgers will return from an seven-game absence for a similar winner-take-all battle for the NFC North title against Chicago.
Maybe the Cowboys are trying to keep the Eagles guessing when it comes to Romo, who injured his back during a 24-23 win over Washington that included a fourth-down touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray in the final 2 minutes.
Or maybe the Cowboys just can't bring themselves to believe the franchise leader in touchdown passes — ahead of Troy Aikman, White and Roger Staubach — is going to miss the game that decides whether they get a playoff game at their $1.2 billion stadium or go home early for the fourth straight season.
One thing's for sure. The confidence of his teammates wasn't shaken after Romo's latest crushing error — an interception that let the Packers finish a rally from a 23-point deficit in a 37-36 win two weeks ago.
Never mind that Romo is 1-6 in elimination games — three losses in the playoffs and three in season finales against NFC East rivals with the division title and a playoff spot on the line, including the past two years against the New York Giants and Washington.
Romo, whose only playoff win was against Philadelphia in the 2009 season, ruined the last chance for a rally against the Redskins last season with an interception late in the fourth quarter.
"Everything we are and we have accomplished over the last few years, that you believe in and you hold on to, is because of him," said tight end Jason Witten, the franchise leader in catches who came into the league with Romo in 2003. "What he creates week in and week out, day in and day out, I don't think you look at a couple of plays and determine. I think that would be foolish for anybody to do that."
Jones' unwavering support for Romo — backed by the offseason signing of a six-year, $108 million contract extension with more guaranteed money than Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco — could get a little tricky if Orton leads an improbable win against the Eagles. Philadelphia jumped from a 2½-point favorite to a 6½-point pick after news of the Romo injury broke.
The Cowboys obviously aren't worried about those implications at the moment. They're simply trying to tell the world they can beat the high-scoring Eagles without the guy who carries the label of the quarterback who can't win the big one, or keeps finding ways to lose it.
"Tony is our guy but we've got to move ahead and go from there," receiver Dez Bryant said. "For us, we believe in our quarterbacks. I don't think it's going to be much of a big issue for us."
Romo didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday, and coach Jason Garrett said he wasn't involved in many meetings either. He missed his regular weekly media session Thursday and hasn't been seen during the open portion of practice or in the locker room.
And yet, the Cowboys just can't seem to let go.
"I think we've gotten used to him kind of limping around and finding a way and somehow, some way, Wednesday rolls around and he's back out there," Witten said. "I think we all believed that would be the case."
It wasn't, so maybe now the world will find out what the Cowboys can do without him.