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Stakes high for Dallas and Denver

IRVING, Texas — About the time the soreness from playing the Detroit Lions began setting in Sunday, Drew Bledsoe went back to work, studying film of the Denver Broncos.

Coach Bill Parcells arrived by 2:50 a.m. Monday. Parcells kept players at the facility until 6:30 p.m.

During their marathon day of post-game treatment, practice, film sessions and meetings, receivers coach Todd Haley turned to the team's veteran leaders and said, "These are days we need you for. Those 16 Sundays and days like this."

It's a short week, and the team needed to cram. The intense way the Cowboys (7-3) went about it is indication that today's game against the Broncos (8-2) is more than a holiday afternoon diversion for fans around the country.

This is among the weekend's best matchups, the only one featuring an elite AFC team against a top NFC club. Each team is calling the other the best they've played all season.

Denver coach Mike Shanahan began preparing for the Cowboys last Friday, then again Saturday, even though the Broncos played the New York Jets on Sunday. He went through this four years ago and agreed again when the league asked if he was interested.

He thought his team was mature enough to handle it. Besides, Denver had to play at Texas Stadium anyway, so he figured he might as well take the marquee date.

"It's a great test for our football team to play there in front of a big crowd on a holiday when people are relaxing, watching the organization perform," Shanahan said. "If you're not focused, you're not going to win. ... We have a veteran team that understands the demands that a short week has. Both teams are in the same predicament and the one who handles the elements the best usually wins."

This is the kind of November game that could say a lot about both teams' chances in January.

Denver has won three straight and needs to keep piling up the victories to have a chance of snatching home-field advantage in the playoffs from the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. If not, the Broncos are going to have to win on the road to get to the Super Bowl — and they're 2-2 away from home. Four of Denver's last six games are on the road, starting with this one.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "But I think we've stepped up already in the past and we know if we want to get a win, we are going to have to step up this time."

The Cowboys also are on a three-game winning streak, with their prime goal winning the NFC East. This game starts a tough closing stretch, with their next game on the road against the New York Giants, the team they're tied with for first place in the NFC East.

"If you put them in the bank the way that you're supposed to, then you can possibly find yourself playing in the postseason," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "I would say that 11-5 probably gets you in the playoffs. I don't know that 10-6 will do it this year. We've got a long way to go, man, a loooong way to go."

There are some striking similarities between these clubs.

Both have mastered the concept of playing keep-away, combining strong defenses with offenses that know how to burn the clock.

Dallas leads the NFL in time of possession, averaging 33 minutes, 16 seconds, but that's only 6 seconds more than Denver. A commitment to running the ball is behind it all, with Cowboys running backs averaging the most carries in the league and the Broncos a close second in that category, too.

Denver has far more to show for it thanks to the usual success of its small, quick line and its tailback tandem of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. Dallas is trying to emulate that 1-2 punch with a recent shift to the duo of Julius Jones and Marion Barber III.

In Plummer and Bledsoe, both quarterbacks are playing better than many expected at this stage in their careers.

Bledsoe is tied for the top passer rating in the NFC. Plummer is fifth in the AFC, but only a few percentage points behind Bledsoe. He also hasn't thrown an interception since Week 2, a stunning stretch to Dallas fans who haven't seen him since he was scrambling for the Arizona Cardinals.

As for defense, Denver is coming off its first shutout in seven years and is allowing only 78.8 yards rushing per game. Dallas' D has allowed seven touchdowns over the last seven games and already has gone through a a three-week stretch in which it allowed no more than 13 points to Philadelphia, the Giants and Seattle when each boasted the league's most potent offense. Now they take on an offense that's scored at least 20 points in nine straight games.

"It doesn't take much to get you amped up, getting ready to play this game," said Denver defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, who played for Dallas from 1999-2003. "I think I speak for all the players when I say we're excited for the opportunity."