LANDOVER, Md. – The question has been asked to me over and over. If it's not a question, it's been a comment from fans, media or any other followers of this team.
Does this season feel different than the others?
And the answer to that question, all season long, has been hard to come up with. In some ways, it has felt the same; in others, it's way different.
But after the Cowboys completed their third straight 12-5 regular season with a convincing 38-10 win over the Commanders, I think it's now pretty clear: Yes, this is different.
And the way the Cowboys won this game on Sunday is another reason why this seems to be the case.
Now, we all know how this season ends will determine the real answer to the question, if it even matters at all.
But I'm someone who is old enough to say that I covered three straight 5-11 seasons coached by Dave Campo in the early 2000s. I also covered the Jason Garrett teams that finished 8-8 three straight years. And just about everyone reading this probably remembers both of those eras.
So before we start to dissect exactly what "this" 12-5 season is like compared to the others, maybe we should stop for a moment to take that part in. This Cowboys team has won 12 games three years in a row!
No coach in the history of this franchise has won 12 games in a season for three consecutive years. Not Tom Landry, not Jimmy Johnson nor Barry Switzer nor anyone else. Of course, those three won Super Bowls and that is ultimately how McCarthy will be judged.
But let's just remember the fact that the Cowboys are this good – they're 12-5 good and have been for three years in a row.
Still, this game and this team is different in a few ways. We don't have time to go through all of the reasons, but the biggest one is the fact that Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb are playing on a completely different level right now. Dak probably won't win MVP of the league, but he'll finish second to Lamar Jackson. He could be a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year and even Comeback Player of the Year the way he's bounced back this season.
He led the league in interceptions last year and now leads the league in touchdown passes. Incredible. And CeeDee was right there with him, finishing his season with 133 catches, the sixth most in NFL history.
So that's maybe the biggest difference right now with this team – just how the offense is clicking. But I've got another one, and it showed up in the middle of this game on Sunday at FedEx Field.
Be honest, when the Cowboys turned the ball over in the middle of the field and Washington drove for a go-ahead field goal, did you shift your focus to the Eagles-Giants game? Honestly, I think that's when I looked at the score for the first time.
Not that I was giving up the notion the Cowboys could win this game, but we've seen this type of game too many times before, especially here in Washington. This is the place where a lot of weird, quirky things happen, and when you've got a Commanders team that has seven straight losses and seems to be using every trick play they've got and going for it on fourth down, perhaps this isn't going to be your day.
Seriously, a blocked field goal for Brandon Aubrey's first miss of the season? Then a tipped interception at the line of scrimmage that led to Washington's next score? At that point, I'm sure a lot of doubters were already expecting this to end on a sour note.
But the Cowboys didn't just bounce back, they bounced the Commanders on their heads. They absolutely took control of this game and promptly delivered the type of ass-kicking you want to see from a team heading into the playoffs.
Now, I think it's fair to point out this: The Cowboys were awful last year in Washington in Week 18, and it had absolutely no effect in the following week as they blew out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road and sent Tom Brady into retirement.
On the one hand, you can say that this regular-season finale won't mean anything, just like last year. On the other, you could say that the Cowboys made sure they never even got to that point because they righted the ship and ended up blowing the Commanders out this time around.
And the latter is what I'm going with because it proves, to me at least, that this team is different.
I get it, Washington is not a good team at all, which is why it'll be picking No. 2 overall in the draft in April. That's not the issue here. The Commanders were a desperate team, playing to win, and for a moment there in the second quarter, it looked like they might have enough spark to do that.
That's when the Cowboys put their foot down. That's what a good team does – regardless if it's at home or away, grass or turf, playing against an elite team or one ready to fire its head coach and get to the offseason.
When the moment is there to go put a team away, that's what you have to do and that's exactly what the Cowboys did on Sunday.
And we all know they haven't done that every game. They didn't close the game out in Miami. They didn't pull away from the Lions and had to scratch and claw for a win.
In a 17-game season, it's long enough to see examples of just about everything. They've won in blowout fashion, they've won some close games and they've beaten some good teams as well.
The one thing they haven't done consistently is win on the road – something they don't have to worry about for at least two weeks – because of how they played on the road this Sunday.
Yes, this team feels different. But we're really about to find out if they are or not.