ARLINGTON, Texas — It had to come down to a final game. Had to. Just like it’s come down to the final drive over and over again. The white-knuckled way the Dallas Cowboys‘ season had gone, it would never end with coach Jason Garrett and his players watching the final day play out with their feet up, coasting into the playoffs. It wouldn’t fit. It had to be like this.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins on Sunday night. Prime time. A playoff spot and NFC East crown for the winner. Just like last year, when it was Giants-Cowboys. Like it should be.
(For the loser? Well, that’d be the end of the road for the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the ‘Skins can back their way into a wild-card spot, but only if the Bears and Vikings go down earlier on Sunday.)
Sure, it would have been nice for Dallas to extend its winning streak to four games, as opposed to losing to the New Orleans Saints, 34-31, in overtime in front of 92,570 at Cowboys Stadium. Sunday would have been more pleasant had the Cowboys recovered New Orleans receiver Marques Colston’s fumble down to the 2-yard-line that Jimmy Graham wound up corralling to secure the Saints’ victory.
But this defeat didn’t ruin the Cowboys. Not even close. Not in a season that has featured a cat-like nine lives. It only ramped up the enthusiasm for next week.
“I think we always thought … we were going to have to win this game against the Redskins,” owner Jerry Jones said. “It certainly turns out we do. I never thought that we wouldn’t have to win the game against the Redskins to have life after the regular season.”
That’s where they are. Win, and they are in. Same for the Redskins in an ultra-competitive NFC East. As for the defending champion New York Giants, their plight isn’t so simple. They need to beat the Eagles, have the Redskins defeat/tie the Cowboys and have both the Bears and Vikings lose.
In one of the league’s stoutest divisions, a logjam has promised to deliver drama one last time. That’s why, even with the frustrating ending for the Cowboys on Sunday and the way they wasted a stirring comeback, they must turn the page quickly.
“The optimism will start 24 hours probably from now,” quarterback Tony Romo said immediately following the game. “Right now, it’s just a tough thing to think about.”
There were regrets. Running back DeMarco Murray‘s anger with a momentum-turning, third-quarter fumble that he said “shouldn’t have come out.” The third-and-5 incompletion on the Cowboys’ overtime possession that would have kept them on the field. The replay that could have overturned Colston’s catch five minutes into OT — with cornerback Morris Claiborne saying to himself at the time, “Please let the pass be incomplete” — but didn’t.
“It’s very difficult when you definitely know you should have won the game,” said Murray, who had 11 rushes for 40 yards. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to those guys, but we definitely let this one slip away from us. It is what it is. We’ve got to continue to fight and we’ve got another game next week. Hopefully, we’ll make a splash.”
The opportunity certainly exists.
Suddenly, the Cowboys have a chance to mimic last season’s Giants. All season, they’ve looked at Big Blue’s wondrous march to the Super Bowl XLVI title and wondered, Why couldn’t we do that? Well, here’s your shot.
“It’s amazing how you play every week and you don’t think about what’s ahead or anything but your opponent,” said Romo, who completed 26 of his 43 passes for 416 yards and four scores on Sunday. “But, that’s the only reason you really play, in a lot of ways, is to get your team into that position and to get in the playoffs, so you can have a chance. When you get in, anything can happen. I know that. We’ve seen that far too many times. We just need to do the right things to get in.”
So much of this Cowboys season has been about being handed a frustrating outcome, coming to grips with it, then moving forward. On the field, it’s led to early deficits and five fourth-quarter comebacks — six if you include Sunday’s futile attempt. Off the field, it has them answering questions about Garrett’s job status, with Sean Payton possibly waiting in the wings. Further off the field, it included handling the tragic death of practice squad player Jerry Brown Jr. — and the complicated reality that defensive tackle Josh Brent is to blame — then winning a day later.
Sunday, it revolves around beating their bitter rival, the Redskins, who boast the talents of Robert Griffin III. All he did last time was drop four touchdowns on Dallas’ head in a near-perfect Thanksgiving performance that left Jones “in awe.” Defensive end Marcus Spears feels the Cowboys will be better prepared this time, and perhaps they will. Because when they take the field Sunday, everything they’ve wanted is at stake.
“This team’s got a lot of fight to come back the way we have and continue to do,” said tight end Jason Witten, who had six catches for 60 yards. “There’s something about this team. You’re proud to be a part of it. We’ve got to move forward. We have an opportunity to go to the playoffs.“