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Phillips: Win No. 11 Wasn't Pretty, But The Cowboys' Fight Was Playoff Caliber

FRISCO, Texas – Jason Garrett's postgame locker room speech to his football team last Thursday night wasn't long – under two minutes.

Thirteen times he used the word "Fight," perhaps the most prevalent and foundational phrase in the Cowboys' program, emphasizing competitiveness and resilience over adversity.

"It might be my favorite win out of the 11 we've had this year," he told his players.


In a game where the Cowboys posted season-lows in points (17), total net yards (264), net passing yards (124) third-down conversion percentage (1-of-9) and first downs (13)?

In a game where the Cowboys tied a season high with two turnovers?

In a game where the Cowboys committed 10 penalties, tying their second-highest total of the season, and two of them wiped out plays deep into Minnesota Vikings territory (Ezekiel Elliott's 43-yard run and Anthony Hitchens' interception)?

In a game where the Cowboys needed their first takeaway since Oct. 30 – a forced fumble and recovery in punt coverage by linebacker Kyle Wilber – to finally take the lead for good in the fourth quarter?

"It was not the cleanest game," Garrett told his team. "It was not the cleanest game on offense. It wasn't the cleanest game on offense or in the kicking game. It was the best demonstration of fight we had in the first 12 weeks of the season."

Now, does Garrett need and expect his team to execute better going forward? Of course he does. The Cowboys clinched a playoff spot last Thursday night, 17-15 over the Vikings, and it was the Oxford Dictionary definition of winning ugly.

Things had come so easily for this team over the first 11 games. At least, it seemed that way. The truth? Winning in the National Football League is tough. Winning 11 straight games is rare. These Cowboys had already learned the degree of difficulty; three times before Minnesota they'd rallied in the fourth quarter of games.

Last Thursday night, inside a deafening new U.S. Bank Stadium against a top-three defense scratching to stay in the NFC North race, was a precursor for playoff football.

Garrett knows. He was part of the Cowboys' three Super Bowl teams in the 1990s. He understands it wasn't easy, even for them.

Nostalgia might cloud one's memory. The Great Troy Aikman did throw interceptions. The Great Michael Irvin did drop passes. The Great Emmitt Smith did fumble the ball. The defense did give up touchdowns.

The '92 Cowboys played in six games decided by a touchdown or less. The '93 Cowboys lost their first two games during Emmitt Smith's contract holdout and needed an overtime win over the New York Giants in the season finale – Smith's famous performance with a separated shoulder – to clinch the division and a first-round bye.

No one should compare the 2016 Cowboys to the Triplets dynasty. It's unfair, and this year's team is attempting to write its own story. But the point is that it's never perfect – especially when you're playing your third game in 12 days.

Of course you'd like 16 Week Fives, when the Cowboys held a dominant 28-0 lead in the fourth quarter of a 28-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. But coaches know those games aren't weekly gifts.

Victories like last Thursday night give Garrett plenty of mistakes to point out to an 11-1 team that hasn't lost since the opener. It's a good teaching tool. It's also further proof to the head coach that his team will fight and pick each other up if one side of the ball struggles. Chances are they'll face a challenge like that at some point, some quarter, some play, in the postseason.

Garrett has said before that his favorite Tony Romo game was a whopping 49.9 passer rating in 2007 at Buffalo. Romo threw five interceptions, but led the team to 12 straight points in the fourth quarter in a last-second victory on the road. Rookie starter Dak Prescott had what you might call a similar moment this year in Week 8, overcoming a 79.9 passer rating (his second lowest of the season) to throw the winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys will have to play better to beat the Giants on Sunday. But they can't play much tougher than they did last Thursday against the Vikings – and that's half the battle in the playoffs.

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