ARLINGTON, Texas – It was at least a little bit refreshing to hear an NFL player admit the obvious, that this seemed fairly unlikely.
After all, considering the depths that this 2020 Dallas Cowboys season reached, who could have legitimately believed they'd be playing for a postseason berth in Week 17?
"It was a tough go there for a little bit, lot of folks weren't really thinking it," Michael Gallup said. "We weren't exactly thinking it. You're still going to practice and play for it, but you weren't exactly thinking it."
Kudos to Gallup and his teammates for practicing and playing for it, because now it's here. Left for dead just three short weeks ago, the Cowboys are on the cusp of the NFC East championship and the playoff berth that comes with it.
Yes, to be fair, it's not all in their hands. No matter what, they must defeat the New York Giants on Sunday.
If they manage that, they get to go home to watch their fate be decided, as Sunday's Washington-Philadelphia matchup has been flexed to Sunday Night Football in primetime. An Eagles win over Washington coupled with a Dallas win over New York would give the Cowboys the NFC East title and the playoff berth that goes along with it.
That's a lot of moving parts, but it still feels awfully manageable compared to what this team has been through to get here.
"I can't say enough about the football team, just the whole operation, the way everybody's battled and the challenges that we've had," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "It's come full circle in these past three weeks."
Three games and three wins – the Cowboys' first three-game winning streak since the beginning of the 2019 season. What feels more important than the wins themselves is what the Cowboys had to overcome to get them.
Of course, there have been injuries, but that feels like ancient history at this point. Even in the last six weeks, since Andy Dalton has taken over as the starting quarterback, this team has had to deal with the death of its strength and conditioning coordinator, Markus Paul, and a Tuesday game against Baltimore that felt like it might not ever get played.
Factor in the part where that Tuesday game against Baltimore was a humiliating 34-17 loss that dropped them to 3-9, and the turnaround becomes all the more impressive.
"We just kind of had to push through some of the tough stretches that we had this year," Dalton said. "At the end of the day, you want to be playing your best football in December and going into January. For us, I feel like we're doing that right now."
None of this is to say the Cowboys didn't have belief. No one on the roster better exemplifies belief better than Ezekiel Elliott. It's almost comical how many times the Cowboys' star running back has been asked this season what his team still has to play for, and every week his answer remained the same.
Back when the record was 3-9, or even 4-9, Elliott likely got laughed at when he said the Cowboys were still in the hunt. So if he wants to do some laughing now, it's well-earned.
"If you gave up five, six weeks ago, you shouldn't even be – we don't even want you on our side," Elliott said. "I mean, we are competitors. This whole team is. We are a team of competitors. I mean, we weren't out of it."
Even if they win on Sunday, the Cowboys aren't guaranteed a playoff spot. But it's clear now that Elliott wasn't wrong. It's something that was echoed around the victorious locker room, as well.
"Yeah, I mean until I read that message board saying 'eliminated,' we don't ever stop," said Tyrone Crawford. "That's been a message outside of the talking heads, outside of our locker room, that's been our message all year. So we're never out of it."
Perhaps that should be a lesson for those of us on the outside. It's become quite a rarity when the Dallas Cowboys don't have something to play for in Week 17. This season looked for all the world like one of those rare occasions – until it didn't.
Through their own work and perseverance, the Cowboys have hope at the end of the season. And since they've come this far, they don't intend to let up now.
"You never know," Sean Lee said. "You know, I've been out of it in November. And when you have a shot, you've got to put everything you have into it."