IRVING, Texas – Next.
The 10-4, first-place Dallas Cowboys vs. the 10-4, first-place Indianapolis Colts, 3:25 p.m. Sunday, before what's expected to be a packed and rowdy AT&T Stadium, to be seen on CBS' virtual national broadcast.
A Cowboys win at the very least will hold a one-game lead in the NFC East over the Philadelphia Eagles (9-5) with that final game in Washington to go. Eagles lose on Saturday to the Redskins (3-11), as unlikely as that would seem since Washington's last victory is that 20-17 overtime upset against Dallas nine games ago, then the Cowboys with a Sunday victory are assured of qualifying for the "official" NFL playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Cowboys lose and Eagles win, the two teams will once again be tied for first in the East at 10-5 with one game remaining, that finding the Cowboys at Washington next Sunday and the Eagles at the Giants, and the Eagles would hold the tiebreaker advantage again (better division record) if both teams should win their finale, leaving them in an identical 11-5.
See what I mean? For the Cowboys, so thirsty to play a game in January, essentially Sunday's game against a Colts team already having locked up the AFC South title is their third round of the playoffs, having played with this win-and-your-in mentality ever since losing that first NFC East showdown to the Eagles, 33-10, on Thanksgiving Day.
"Our team, really, after the Philadelphia game on Thanksgiving, kind of got in the mindset that the playoffs have started, so we've done a good job of handling those situations, going on the road back-to-back weeks and just playing really good football, so I don't see that changing," Cowboys veteran tight end Jason Witten says. "As big a game as that was last week and (as big) a win, I think our team understands the stakes just get higher. That's good. We need to embrace that."
He's right on all counts. Wonder what those calling last Sunday night's showdown with the Eagles in Philadelphia "the biggest game of the season" are now calling this Cowboys game against the Colts? The bigger biggest game of the season? Because once you win that big one at Philly, Witten is dead on, the stakes just get higher. And they certainly do in this game, as they also will next Sunday at FedExField if the Cowboys and the Eagles both should win this weekend.
Then that would be for all the marbles, if all the marbles means winning the NFC East and getting into the NFC playoffs since the Cowboys really can't, and really shouldn't, count on getting any outside help to derail teams such as Detroit, Green Bay or Seattle for one of the two precarious wild-card berths where their NFC record at this point is a not-so-friendly tiebreaker.
Thus, running the table these final four games of the season is essential, just as in the playoffs: Win and you move on. Lose, and basically they are showing you the backdoor.
"I think you knew going into Chicago if you didn't win that game it would be very difficult to have any chance of getting in," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo says, obviously a fine math student at Eastern Illinois. "We've been at it for two weeks. We feel like we've been in the playoffs for the entire month of December, so we're going to just keep that attitude and keep going."
But the going gets tougher. The Cowboys have been practicing all week not knowing for sure, but hoping the likes of running back DeMarco Murray (fractured fourth metacarpal), only the NFL's leading rusher, then right guard Zack Martin (ankle), playing at a Pro-Bowl level as a rookie, and right tackle Doug Free (ankle), the veteran leader of the group, will be ready to play. None of the three have gone through a full practice this week.
The last thing you'd want in this situation is to have your backup running backs (Joe Randle and Lance Dunbar) having to play behind the backup right side of your offensive line (guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and tackle Jermey Parnell). Certainly not ideal.
At this point, the Cowboys are listing Murray and Martin as "questionable" for Sunday's game, meaning to me they play, but Free "doubtful," my interpretation being he's out.
But hey, nobody has ever said this NFL business would be easy.
"Everyone's job is to go out and do their job, regardless of circumstance, and that's whether home, away, whether I was playing or not," Romo says. "And that's the approach everyone has to take. I suspect DeMarco is going to get himself in a position to try and play and see what happens.
"But, we've just got to go do our jobs."
Those we's especially have to do their jobs on offense.
Consider this: In eight of the Cowboys' 10 victories so far this season they have scored at least 30 points. That's averaging 34.25 a game. In the two other victories they scored 26 in the 16-point victory over Tennessee and just 20 in the overtime three-pointer with Houston.
Now then, in the four games the Cowboys have lost, they have scored 17, 17, 17, 10.
Notice a trend, do you?
Here is another trend:
In the season-opening 28-17 loss to San Francisco, no way Romo, who barely played during the preseason and measured his days in training camp, was ready to play from a repetition standpoint. He wasn't very good. Just not seeing the field and getting intercepted three of his eight times this season in the first half.
In the 20-17 overtime loss to, of all teams, the Redskins (where have we seen that score before?), Romo sustained the two transverse process fractures that he's still dealing with.
In the 28-17 loss to Arizona (where have we seen that score before?), Romo didn't play.
And in the 33-10 loss to Philadelphia, the lower back-challenged Romo, on just two and a half days of rest between games, was at his season's worst (53.7 passer rating).
Catch my drift?
No matter what this defense does or doesn't do, no matter if Murray is playing or not – and this might sound crazy since the guy has rushed for 1,687 yards and is just 87 yards shy of breaking Emmitt Smith's franchise single-season rushing record – for the Cowboys to win games, Romo must be playing at a high level.
That's just the way it is, and why the Cowboys still will have a chance on Sunday against the Colts if Romo plays at a high level and the guys handling the running chores, Murray or no Murray, are merely average.
Look at this, too, for a second. Going into the weekend's play, Romo's quarterback rating is standing at a single-season, career-high 110.4, and is second in the NFL with two games remaining to only Aaron Rodgers' 111.2. His 69.3 completion percentage is holding at a single-season high (when playing more than six games) and is second in the NFL to only Drew Brees' 70.0 percent. His 8.37-yard average gain per attempt currently is second to his 8.6-yard average during the 2006 season when he started just 10 games, and ranks third in the NFL, just .01 behind Rodgers and Kirk Cousins, who has attempted 177 fewer passes. And his 7.3 touchdowns-per-attempt average is second to only Rodgers' 7.6, two of only three quarterbacks so far in the NFL (Peyton Manning the other at 7.2) with a percentage higher than 6.6.
NFC Pro Bowl candidate for sure?
NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate?
And we could probably argue until the cows come home who is the Cowboys' Most Valuable Player, Romo or Murray, but all I know is in two of the four losses Murray did rush for more than 100 yards and the Cowboys did beat Philly the second time around when Murray rushed for 81 yards, one of only three sub-100 yard performances so far this year.
I know, I know, sort of a chicken or egg type deal.
But, this isn't.
"He's been a good player for a long time," Witten says of Romo, "and when you look at the bottom line we've come up short, and so that position is always going to be criticized the most. But he really carries the load for this team offensively. Just his ability to make the plays, to create the plays.
"He really did a good job the other night staying in there, knowing the defense was getting pressure on him and making big throws for us. He's got thick skin. His standard and his expectations for what he wants to accomplish, what we want to accomplish, is really high."
Just remember when analyzing Romo's career to this point, with regards to Bill Parcells, Romo hasn't been out there playing singles, and no doubt this offensive line and this running back have made life in the cluttered lane a lot more comfortable for him.
Anyway, so here we go, the third consecutive biggest game of the year, and who knows, win and the fourth, and maybe fifth, sixth … will be right around the corner.
Funny, when six games over .500, they just get bigger and bigger.