LANDOVER, Md. – The fate of the Cowboys' season will once again be decided in primetime.
Sunday afternoon's win against Washington assured that the Dec. 29 meeting between Dallas and Philadelphia will decide the NFC East championship. With that in mind, NBC announced Sunday evening that the game, originally slated for the afternoon, would be flexed to Sunday Night Football at 7:30 p.m.
The Cowboys hadn't even arrived back in Dallas when the news came out, but it hardly comes as a surprise. This is the third consecutive season Dallas' playoff hopes hinge on the final day of the season, and it's the third consecutive season the Cowboys' season finale against a division foe has been flexed to primetime.
The Cowboys fell, 31-14, to New York to be bounced from the postseason on the last night of the 2011 season. In 2012, the upstart Redskins defeated them, 28-18, in the same building where the Cowboys just polished off a thrilling win.
One key difference between those two losses and Sunday's third attempt: the Cowboys will be playing for a postseason bid as the home team.
Defense Stands Up
There wasn't any magic fix or "secret sauce" when the Dallas defense took the field with a one-point lead and 1:08 to play.
It was the same injured, inconsistent bunch the Cowboys have turned to for weeks now – they were running the same scheme and the same looks. But with their postseason chances on the line, the Cowboys did do something different – they delivered.
"We were just locking it up man-to-man," said Barry Church. "When it comes to that time, you've put pressure on the receivers, on the quarterback. You've got to go get pressure in his face and just go get the job done."
Dallas forced the Redskins into a crucial four-and-out to preserve the 24-23 win. Remarkably, it was just the second time all day, along with the game's opening series, the Cowboys held Washington without a first down.
"There comes a time when your team needs you the most, when the game is on the line, you've got to stand up and deliver," said Brandon Carr.
Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense didn't even enjoy that good of a day – at least not compared to the performances the Cowboys have allowed recently. Washington only managed 297 yards all told.
But midway through the game, it didn't look like the Cowboys would ever find an answer for Alfred Morris, who rumbled for 88 yards and a score. That's not to mention Pierre Garcon, who abused Carr, who was ailing from the flu, for 11 catches, 144 yards and a touchdown.
"I have thick skin. I've been through a lot – like I said, it's not the first time a person has caught passes one me," Carr said. "I've been ripped apart a few times in my career and it comes with the territory. "
Criticize all you want – and there's plenty of things to be critical of. But with the game on the line, the defense didn't just stop the Redskins – it stonewalled them on four straight plays.
It's the kind of possession they hope they can build on.
"It gave us confidence -- knowing we can force teams to three-and-outs or four-and-outs if necessary," Church said. "It gave us a lot of confidence as a defense."
Spurring Them On
For a moment, it looked like the new guy was going to be the story of the game.
Four plays into his first game as a Cowboy, Micheal Spurlock fielded a Washington punt and veered to the near sideline for a 62-yard return. He reached the Redskins' 3-yard line before he was forced out of bounds. The play set the Cowboys up for a quick score and an early 7-0 lead.
"To go out and do what happened today on your first punt return – almost get a touchdown – it's enjoyable," Spurlock said. "I'm just trying to fit in with the guys and go out there and help them."
Spurlock was mitigated going forward, as Washington punter Sav Rocca didn't allow him to field another punt. He returned three kickoffs for an average of 17 yards per return, but he was never able to get past the 22-yard line.
But still, much like Dwayne Harris in the teams' first meeting Oct. 13, Spurlock was able to exploit the Redskins' punt coverage weaknesses for a big payoff.
"This special teams unit has done a great job all season. The other 10 guys, they did their job and made my job easy," Spurlock said.
Next time, he said he'd prefer not to be caught.
"When you get that close you've got to score," he said. "This week I've got to step it up and at least try to get one in the end zone."
Are You Not Entertained? [embedded_ad]
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones ruffled some feathers last week when he suggested fans wouldn't lose interest in the team because it puts on "a show." For many frustrated fans, it wasn't an encouraging opinion after the Cowboys blew a 23-point lead at home.
But after the Cowboys' ninth game decided by one possession, and their fourth game decided by one point this season, it's pretty hard to argue with him.
Say what you will about how frustrating it has been, but it hasn't lacked for drama.
"Tonight, I don't think there's going to be any apathy," Jones said in the locker room at FedEx Field. "I made a lot of people mad – a lot of people want me to do differently -- but not apathy. And I didn't think so the other day – I didn't think we were suffering from apathy."
That certainly doesn't seem to be the case, as four of the Cowboys' last five games have come down to the wire.
Lest anyone accuse Jones of caring more for the spectacle than the result, though, Jones dismissed that notion with ease. Before the Cowboys rallied against the Redskins, Jones said he felt as low as he had last week after the Green Bay loss – a feeling he said he wasn't familiar with until he took over the Cowboys.
"The wins and the elation is real, and really getting kicked is real, too," he said. "I didn't have this in my life before the Cowboys – in business life. I didn't have these kinds of feelings, and I had some hard disappointments."