Season On The Line

and go out and play." 

Matter of fact, the Cowboys might as well put all their chips on the table, sort of the way they did against Kansas City and as it appeared they were trying to do early in that Washington game until the table was turned upside down in that 1 minute, 28 seconds right before the half when a 14-0 game inflated into a lights-out, 28-0. No sense holding back, now. 

Timing is everything when it comes to perception. See, probably few remember the Redskins were beaten 36-0 by the Giants on Oct. 30. Ancient history. Just don't get beat like that this Saturday. Do you realize these very Panthers, being hailed as one of the strongest teams in the NFC, were beaten by the Saints? Probably not. That was the season opener. Or how about the Giants getting spanked by San Diego, 45-23? That's OK in the third week of the season, just not the 15th. 

You know, when this season began - heck when the schedule was released - the lasting refrain on the Cowboys was how tough the second half of the schedule would be. In fact, from many of you, it was how utterly unfair the second half would be. 

Now, why on earth would you have said that? Just because the Cowboys had to play their second games against all three NFC East opponents on the road? Because the Cowboys would have to play a stretch of three out of four games on the road the final month of the season? Because sitting there in the final six games was Denver, at the Giants, Kansas City, at Washington, at Carolina and St. Louis? 

As it turns out, of those teams, only St. Louis has a losing record, and those six teams have a combined record of 52-30, just about as everyone figured back on Labor Day. Ouch! 

And just for kicks, check this out, because I'm not trying to say this would make any difference or that everything would have played out the same way. But the combined record of the Cowboys' first eight opponents this year right now stands at 55-57, half the opponents with losing records. And the combined record now of the eight second-half opponents is 62-50. 

What if the schedule was inverted, playing these last eight games at the beginning of the season? What if the Cowboys had gone their current 3-3 to start the season and finished 5-3 by winning three of the last four? 

I'm guessing the perception of how the Cowboys reached their current 8-6 record would have been precipitously different. There would have been this unbridled hope hovering over The Ranch instead of this pall. 

But, as Parcells likes to say, it is what it is, and what is right now is the Cowboys, 8-6, trying to stem this stretch of three losses in four games while packing their bags for Saturday's game in Charlotte. N.C. It is the Cowboys trying to become something many thought they weren't at the start of the season - a playoff team. 

"The facts are the facts," Parcells said. "We still have a chance to do something. That's a positive . . . .  

"I've tried to be encouraging to them because everybody else is beating them down. So somebody's got to tell them you think they have a chance to do something, and I do." 

And according to some of the players, that's what he's done. Treat Game 15 as Game 15, not as if walking some NFL gangplank because of what happened the previous game - the only game the Cowboys haven't been competitive in, which is a significant improvement. 

Remember, six times last year the Cowboys were beaten by at least 16 points - and four times by at least 20. During the 10-6 season in 2003, five times they were beaten by double digits. And from 2000-02, they were beaten 13 times by double-digits. Add it up, that's 24 of the 49 losses from 2000-04 by double-digits. Essentially half?  

This year? Just the once so far, the other five losses by no more than the seven they lost by to the Giants (17-10). And in each loss, they've had the opportunity to tie or win in the fourth quarter.  The point? While disappointed by the Washington results - they are, too - don't let the one loss cloud the entire issue. These are 16-game seasons. Let it play out. 

And as Parcells said when asked what encourages him about this 2005 season, "The opportunity. The opportunity, OK?" And he means the opportunity still existing to

MICK GIFTS

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