LANDOVER, Md. – It might not have mattered much to the playoff standings, but Sunday's win in Washington put an emphatic exclamation mark on a December turnaround.
Failure to finish in the last month of the season had been a trademark of Dallas teams under coach Jason Garrett. To say the Cowboys bucked that trend in 2014 isn't doing it justice.
With the 44-17 win against Washington, the Cowboys capped off a 4-0 record in December, and by a combined margin of 165-79 – an average score of 41-20.
"When you get those characteristics of faltering, of fading in December, there's not but one way to cure it, and it's to have a very significant – you need to grow right before people's eyes," said team owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "This one should be in the vision of a lot of fans and media for a long time to come. They grew right before people's eyes."
It's hard to argue with Jones' point. Coming off a 33-10 loss to end November – arguably the ugliest of the Cowboys' four losses – they've been simply dominant.
This marks the first time since 1993 the Cowboys have gone undefeated in the month of December. Fittingly, three of the four December wins came on the road – where the Cowboys secured their first 8-0 record in team history.
The common adage is that the NFL's second season starts next weekend, with the wildcard round of the playoffs. As many Cowboys players have said, though, Dallas' playoff mindset started with this impressive December stretch.
"We really felt like we were playing in the playoffs this month. Four weeks ago, you felt like if you lost a game, you're going to be out," said Tony Romo. "We're just going to keep the same approach we've been having – put our head down, go to work, attack the team we play."
Raise your hand if you picked a Dallas linebacker – and not one named Sean Lee – to lead the team in interceptions in 2014.
On a roster that has spread its takeaways around this season, Bruce Carter stepped up Sunday and ran away with the crown. He intercepted Robert Griffin III not once, but twice on the day, bringing his season-best total to five.
It's fitting Carter would wear that crown, since that's already his nickname. But don't expect any favors from the defensive backs he bested in that category.
"We call him King Carter," said Barry Church. "He's earned that nickname, but I'm not buying him dinner."
Both plays should look familiar to anyone that's watched the Cowboys this season. Playing close to the line, Carter managed to slip out of the quarterback's vision and make a pair of athletic snags on balls thrown over the middle. They looked like carbon copies of the touchdown he scored in St. Louis, as well as the ones he snagged against Jacksonville and Indianapolis.
"We have a turnover-takeover board in our defensive room, and Bruce Carter's name is at the top of it," Garrett said. "He's blocked kicks, intercepted passes, and led them back. He made two huge plays in the game today when they were down in the red area trying to get back in this ballgame, so he has those traits about him and has proved in so many different areas as a player."
Garrett's mantra for the team going all the way back to training camp has become famous during the Cowboys' run to the playoffs – "Fight."
That's exactly what happened midway through the fourth quarter, when Robert Griffin III scored on a two-yard touchdown run to cut the Cowboys' lead to 27-17. After Griffin had crossed the goal line, Pierre Garcon threw a blindside block on Kyle Wilber, who was pursuing the play.
The block drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, but that wasn't good enough for Orlando Scandrick, who made sure to stand up for his teammate. The disagreement resulted in a full-team scuffle, as the Dallas defense and Washington offense got into it.
Asked about it afterward, Wilber smiled.
"I just appreciate my teammates looking out for me and having my best interests at heart," he said.
He won't be making a return trip to the Pro Bowl, but it seems like Anthony Spencer has found a way to make an impact on this defensive line rotation every week during this win streak.
In Chicago, he stripped Matt Forte to help spark a rout. Against Indianapolis, he played his best overall game with two tackles and three pressures. That all led to paydirt – literally – against Washington.
With the Redskins trailing by 13 on their own 18-yard line, Terrell McClain strip-sacked Griffin, and Spencer recovered for a touchdown. It was the Cowboys' fourth and final takeaway, and it helped spark them to a 17-0 run to finish the game.
"With me not really having an offseason and coming back when I did and just working myself back into things, it's just like me finally feeling like myself for the most part," Spencer said.
The fact that Spencer is contributing to this pass rush at all is a victory – both for him and the Cowboys. The 2012 Pro Bowler missed practically all of last season, as he underwent microfracture surgery on his knee. He missed all of training camp, and he wasn't ruled healthy enough to play until Week 4 of the season.
Spencer said the difference between the start of the season and now has been night and day, and it couldn't be coming at a better time.
"I think it's just more reaction – my instincts are coming back with just playing. I think it's just getting a lot of the reps and just being back with the team," he said. "I was off for a whole year, and not to play football for a year in itself is hard to come back from. With me being injured and not having the strength in the leg I do – but now it's coming back. It's all been a work in progress."