IRVING, Texas (AP) – When NFL and network scheduling mavens decided to have Tampa Bay play Dallas on Thanksgiving, they must have envisioned hyping the names Simms and Bledsoe and their shared connection, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells.

Well, the game is here, and the quarterbacks aren’t. Chris Simms (son of Phil, the MVP of Parcells’ first Super Bowl team) is hurt. Drew Bledsoe (the starting quarterback in Parcells’ most recent Super Bowl) is benched. Instead, the national television audience will watch a battle between Bruce Gradkowski and Tony Romo.

In search of another promotional gimmick, how does Joey Galloway returning to Texas Stadium for the first time since being traded for Keyshawn Johnson grab you?

Will you settle for Jon Gruden trying to spruce up his resume in case Jerry Jones is hiring this offseason?

Although Gruden insists his club has loftier goals than trying to be a spoiler – “We don’t think of ourselves as a bunch of deadbeats,” he said – the best story line is the Buccaneers (3-7) trying to slow the Cowboys (6-4).

Sparked by the new quarterback, Dallas has won two in a row and three of four. Another win would send the Cowboys into the weekend with a half-game lead in the NFC East and second only to Chicago (9-1) in the conference.

“We’re playing for home-field advantage now; we’re playing for a first-round bye,” linebacker Kevin Burnett said, inspired by defeating previously unbeaten Indianapolis on Sunday. “When you look at all the things available to us now if we win out and do what we’re supposed to do – the sky is the limit.”

Tampa Bay’s still trying to overcome an 0-3 start and Simms’ season-ending injury, which forced Gruden to go with Gradkowski, a sixth-round pick from Toledo.

After a decent start, he lost three straight then bounced back with a victory Sunday over Washington, a team struggling even more than Tampa Bay. Tarnishing the win was a Tampa Tribune story that Gruden might be eyeing Parcells’ job.

Gruden insists he won’t be house-hunting while in town.

As a former member of People magazine’s most beautiful list, Gruden has the glitz factor that Jones loves. The Cowboys, however, have plenty of it right now with Terrell Owens and, of all people, Romo.

Undrafted after being the Division I-AA MVP as a senior at Eastern Illinois, Romo didn’t throw a pass his first 3 NFL seasons. He made his debut a month ago Thursday, replacing Bledsoe at halftime against the New York Giants.

The Cowboys already were trailing and ended up losing, but Romo has been fantastic ever since. In his last two outings, he’s earned the NFC offensive player of the week award and outplayed Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter of a tight game. His QB rating of 100.0 is a half-point behind Manning for tops in the NFL.

“Being quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, you’ve got to have something extra – and he has it,” linebacker Bradie James said.

Romo Mania is taking off.

He’s hired a publicist to handle the requests for his time. The Dallas Morning News had a story Tuesday about his Pro Bowl chances. And Jones has gone from lowering his expectations when Romo took over to being as optimistic as he’s been since Troy Aikman was taking snaps.

Parcells just shakes his head and gripes about the Romo bandwagon going so fast that it’s crossed the Illinois state line, bound for Canton, Ohio.

“I see the warts,” he said. “You guys see something else.”

All of Parcells’ squawking might intimidate a youngster like Gradkowski. For Romo, that’s where his long apprenticeship pays off.

“Seventy-five percent of the stuff Bill says goes in one ear and out the other, because he’s just getting on you about things,” Romo said. “The other 25 percent he’s actually trying to make you a better player, and that’s the stuff you have to listen to.”

Romo’s savviest move was getting Owens more involved. Keeping No. 81 happy is as good for team harmony as it is for moving the chains.

Owens will be playing on Thanksgiving for the first time. He’s already vowed to put on a show.

“I got some things up my sleeve,” he said.

He’s also got a copy of his new book, “Little T Learns To Share,” for fellow children’s book author Ronde Barber, the Tampa Bay cornerback he’ll line up against at times Thursday.

“Maybe I’ll give it to him as a stocking stuffer,” Owens said.

Even though Fox missed out on the Simms-Bledsoe angle, the network still is putting its mark on the game: Former “American Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are handling the national anthem and the halftime show; alas, Cowboys fans, Emmitt Smith danced into pop-culture stardom on another network.


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