SANTA CLARA — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo recalled Wednesday seeing the 49ers rise to prominence before it took full bloom. Now that it's here, he doesn't see it ending anytime soon.

"They are as good a test as we play all year," Romo said in a conference call in advance of the Cowboys hosting the 49ers in the teams' regular-season opener Sunday.

Three years ago, Romo guided the Cowboys to an overtime victory against the 49ers in the second game of the season. Before and after the game, Romo told people that the 49ers were primed for a magical run.

Sure enough, the 49ers won 12 of their final 14 regular-season games that season and advanced to the first of three straight NFC Championship Games.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys finished 8-8 each of those seasons. Romo said he is confident that his team is about to have its breakout season.

Getting off to a good start entails finding a way to succeed against a 49ers defense that Romo calls one of the best in the league.

The fact the 49ers are missing standout linebackers Aldon Smith -- he is suspended the first nine games — and NaVorro Bowman, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery doesn't necessarily give the Cowboys a break, Romo said.

"I don't think there's ever a good time," Romo said. "No one player makes that defense. They're a collection of outstanding individual talent with a very good scheme that can create issues with the way that they're doing things.


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"So, I expect them to double Dez Bryant and come out there and do some things that give me trouble. We're going to have to prepare for that and be ready."

In particular, Romo is most concerned about inside linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive tackle Justin Smith, who has a penchant for dominating offensive linemen and wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

"They're as respected individuals as I've had to go against," Romo said. "Their respect across the league is at the highest level. Justin Smith might have been the best player in the NFL over the course of the last five years.

I know he gets a lot of pub about it, but when I watch tape he might have been the defensive player of the year for about three years in a row there."