IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys have a huge gift sitting right under their proverbial Christmas tree. It’s wrapped neatly and has a big bow on the top.
The question now: Will the Cowboys actually open it up?
It might not be the easiest of gifts to unwrap, considering how well the Washington Redskins have played of late, winning six straight to take a one-game lead in the NFC East race.
That span of victories has also included a Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys in which rookie Robert Griffin III was sensational in getting his Redskins to a big lead before holding off the Cowboys for a 38-31 win.
So the task at hand is a challenging one.
But it’s pretty simple: If the Cowboys can find a way to beat the Redskins, they’ll win the NFC East and advance to the playoffs, where they will host a playoff game at Cowboys Stadium, probably against the Seahawks.
If they lose, the offseason begins immediately as the team walks off the field in Washington.
But after a disappointing 34-31 overtime loss to the Saints on Sunday, the Cowboys found out later they still control their own destiny. With the Giants losing to the Ravens, it set up a winner-take-all showdown in a game that has been flexed to Sunday Night Football on NBC.
“We are excited about it. You live for games like this,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “We have worked very hard to get to this point and it will be a great challenge for us going up to Washington. But we played 15 ball games and we’ve got a chance to go play for the NFC East crown on Sunday night, so we are awfully excited about the opportunity.”
Garrett said the news of the Giants’ loss did help ease the pain of the Cowboys’ disappointing defeat, especially after they rallied from 14 down in the final four minutes to force overtime, only to lose on a field goal that followed a controversial fumble and recovery by the Saints.
“It was a hard fought battle, there’s no question about that,” Garrett said. “I think, we played really, really hard. There was a relentless spirit about our football team. There was a belief we could get the job done. Ultimately, we came up short. We certainly feel good about how we played even though we didn’t make enough plays to win the game. The Saints deserve credit for doing that. But we’re moving forward and looking forward to this opportunity Sunday night against the Redskins.”
While there is a huge contrast with this outcome – win and move on or lose and go home – it’s something the Cowboys have definitely been used to in their recent past.
Dallas has faced this type of scenario before. This game marks four of the last five years that the Cowboys will enter the regular season finale with either a shot to win the division or gain a wild card spot.
So far, the Cowboys are just 1-2 in those contests. They lost the 2008 season finale in Philadelphia, 44-6, missing a wild card berth. The following year, the Cowboys blanked the Eagles, 24-0, with the NFC East title on the line. That kept them at home and put the Eagles back at Cowboys Stadium the next week in the playoffs, where Dallas also won 34-14.
Then last year, the Cowboys and Giants met with identical 8-7 records with the division title at stake. The Giants jumped out to a 21-0 lead and held on for a 31-14 victory.
“Experience can be a real positive thing and it doesn’t’ always have to be a good experience, but a bad experience that you didn’t get the job done but can learn from it,” Garrett said. “We have a lot of different football players on our team than we had the last four or five years. Every year is a new team. But there have been some guys who have been in those games and hopefully we can benefit from that experience.”