IRVING, Texas -It's still a little unbelievable, isn't it? The Cowboys could've won the NFC East in Week 17 and knocked the Giants out of the playoffs altogether.
Or, they could've done the same in Week 16 had those Giants lost to the Jets and the Cowboys beaten Philadelphia. Or, if they had simply beaten New York in Week 14 to go up two full games, how different things would be today.
In the end, though, the Cowboys lost all three of those games, failing to win the NFC East by taking advantage of the worst regular season the division has ever had. For the first time in its history, 9-7 won the East.
Yes, the Giants were the hottest team in the league over the last two months and a deserving champion, but they're the same team that was swept by Washington, lost to Vince Young at home, gave up 36 points in a home loss to Seattle and lost four games in a row in the heart of the season.
Not only could the Cowboys not beat those Giants, but they couldn't beat the disappointing Eagles, either, and the Cowboys' 8-8 finish was good for only third place by virtue of Philadelpia owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The moral of this story? The Cowboys had better get better in a hurry, because the rest of the division is sure to be more competitive in 2012. Just look at how hot both Philly and New York were at the end of the season. The Giants' he-man run through the playoffs has been well-documented, while Philadelphia finally got things together and finished the year on a 4-0 tear. The defense was playing together, and Michael Vick was healthy.
One could argue that the Giants really are an average team that simply got hot at the right time, but the same could've been said about the Packers last year, a 9-7 team that was the NFC's sixth seed, but peaked at the end of the year on the way to a Super Bowl win. They came back this year, went 15-1 and were far and away the league's best team during the regular season. And yet the Giants completely dismantled them at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.
Green Bay in 2010, like the Giants in 2011, had a ton of injuries throughout the year. Those things even out over time, and the rest of the NFC East can't expect to have the good fortune of passing against New York's third or fourth cornerbacks next year.
And remember, the Cowboys needed late Dan Bailey field goals to beat the Redskins in both their 2011 matchups, so it's not like Dallas is far and away better than Washington, exactly.
The Giants, Eagles and Redskins will be making offseason adjustments of their own, of course. Washington could be on the verge of getting a lot better, too, if they can land a difference-making quarterback in the offseason. If they got a healthy Peyton Manning, the entire NFC East would be turned on its ear.
The Cowboys' top decision-maker, at least, acknowledges how far the team has to go just to keep up with the rest of the division.
"We do need to continue to have the sleeves rolled up, continue to have our nose to the grindstone and continue to try to improve," Jerry Jones said. "Our competition is going to. And so we need to go out here and make some good decisions, and we will. I'm very confident of that."
Jones said he still believes the Cowboys' personnel was good enough for the team to compete at a higher level than it did in 2011. But it must continue to get better.
"I think somebody wrote that I said I was scared of Philadelphia," Jones said. "I'm still scared of Philadelphia. They've got really top personnel. But I must say that I'm so impressed with the way the Giants overcame their injuries, got back healthy and really took off on a run near the end of the year.
"I think to some degree, I'm going to give them a little credit for some of the reasons that we're sitting here, and didn't have the playoff run that we thought."