IRVING, Texas – Let the playoffs begin.
Cowboys-Eagles, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, at a soldout Linc, national TV, temperatures likely in the high 30s at kickoff, with winds at 10 mph, very small chance of precipitation. First place in the NFC East on the line. Maybe the NFC East Division title. Eagles 3½-point favorites.
Winner stays alive. Loser, well, will need exterior resuscitation.
Oh? Still two games remaining after this game?
Well, let me tell you …
No, better yet, let them tell you.
"It's hard to get to 9-4," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was saying the other day, "hard to get to this point. We need to win football games. We need to win this game."
"Oh, this is as big as it gets," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones has said. "Certainly I know it will be for the Eagles and for us as well, a playoff type of game."
Need more proof. Let's go to the big guy.
"I just feel that it's like a playoff game," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "It's almost one of those that you have to win."
And when do you ever here players say something like this if it's not effectively a do-or-die situation?
"We can't wait 'til Sunday," Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "I couldn't wait to get into meetings, to watch film and to look at these guys again.
"I can't wait."
Neither can we, right? One of those delicious games that comes around every now and then, so no need to further ask if the Cowboys understand the importance of this one. They know.
OK, understood. We know there are two more regular-season games to play following Sunday night's showdown between the 9-4 Cowboys and the 9-4 Eagles. We get it. They do, too.
But if the Cowboys are going to finally make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons without depending on what this team does and what that team does, then my advice to them is to win out. Because look, lose to the Eagles and they are one game back in the loss column for the NFC East title, but effectively two games back since they will have lost both games to the Eagles, meaning they would lose the very first tiebreaker, head-to-head, if the two teams finished with the same record.
Then, in order to win the NFC East the Cowboys would have to win out, finish 11-5, and the Eagles would have to lose out, finish 10-6. Good luck with all that since the Eagles finish on the road at the Redskins and Giants.
Cowboys, at home vs. Indianapolis and then at Washington.
But, you guys know all that by now.
And you also know there is a possibility the Cowboys could finish 11-5 and not even grab one of the two available wild-card spots, especially if they get into a three-team tiebreaker because of their lagging NFC record (6-4), which is the exact reason why, if the playoffs started today, Detroit and Seattle would be the wild-card winners at 9-4 because of their 7-2 NFC records and Philly would be the NFC East champ on the strength of that Thanksgiving Day victory over the Cowboys.
The only tiebreaker advantage the Cowboys have today is in a two-team tiebreaker with Seattle, since they've beaten the Seahawks head-to-head. And if Arizona should stumble, like losing out to finish 11-5, and the Cowboys lose to the Eagles and then win out, the Cards beat the Cowboys in a two-team tiebreaker, head-to-head, and would beat the Cowboys in a three teamer with a better NFC record (8-4 to 7-5).
As you can see, lose to Philly and the Cowboys will need a bunch of help, and that's never a good position to be in.
So likely, if the Cowboys are to help themselves, then it's time to run the table and finish the season strong with a four-game winning streak. Then they won't have a thing to worry about.
Just like they did back in the glory days of the early 1990s, when they also had to run the table to grab a wild-card berth in 1991, and then again as defending Super Bowl champions to win the NFC East over the Giants to gain home-field advantage in the playoffs in 1993.
So, a little history lesson.
In 1991, the Cowboys had just lost consecutive road games, falling to 6-5, and were facing the 11-0 Washington Redskins on the road. Early in the third quarter they lost Troy Aikman to a sprained knee, yet behind backup Steve Beuerlein they beat the Redskins, 24-21. Then Pittsburgh and New Orleans, too, still with Beuerlein at quarterback.
Next up, wouldn't you know it? The Eagles at The Vet, with Beuerlein ready to start his third consecutive game. The Cowboys were clobbered the first time around by Philadelphia at Texas Stadium, 24-zip, the third game of the season. So was Aikman, sacked a club record-tying 11 times, making Romo's four sacks in the Eagles' 33-10 victory over the Cowboys this Thanksgiving seem a drop in the bucket.
But this time the Cowboys won, 25-13, a Kelvin Martin 85-yard punt return 45 seconds into the fourth quarter giving them a 15-10 lead and the impetus for this milestone victory, defeating the Eagles for the first time in nine games and for the first time with Jimmy Johnson as head coach in six games. The wild-card berth was theirs, securing their first playoff appearance in six years. They would go on to complete the run, beating Atlanta in the season finale, Beuerlein finishing the one game and starting the next four as the Cowboys ran the table over the final five games of the season.
Then there was 1993.
After losing back-to-back games at Atlanta and then the icy Thanksgiving Day game to Miami, the Cowboys were 7-4. They would win the next four straight – Philly, at Minnesota, at the Jets and Washington – but even at 11-4 they were merely tied for first in the NFC East with the Giants. And who they would have to play in the season finale, but New York. At Giants Stadium. And on top of that, as it turned out, with Emmitt Smith gutting through a mid-degree separation of his shoulder for the second half.
The Cowboys won, 16-13, but needing overtime … just to win the division. Otherwise, they would have fallen to the fourth seed, tops among the then three wild-card teams.
Of course the Cowboys would go on to win the Super Bowl, wiping out Green Bay, San Francisco again for the NFC title and then the Bills again for the XXVIII's ring. The hardest part, as it turned out, was just winning the division.
Those two Cowboys teams left nothing to chance. They relied on no one else to do their dirty work. They did it all on their own, and then some if counting going into overtime in the final game of the season.
So that brings us back to Sunday, the game being called the biggest of the year. Right? But if the Cowboys should happen to win, then next Sunday's game against Indianapolis at AT&T will become the biggest game of the year. And win that, and the season finale at Washington, unless a whole bunch of teams start losing, will become the biggest game of the year.
And then …
But that's the way the NFL ball bounces. More games you win, the bigger the games get. I mean, if the Cowboys should fill this tall order, then doesn't a first-round playoff game become the biggest game of the year? That's what happens when you roll with the big boys, something someone born after Jan. 17, 2010, would know nothing about – the date of the Cowboys last playoff appearance, a 34-3 loss at Minnesota following the 2009 season of 11-5 and playoff victory over Philadelphia.
Yep, Sunday's game against the Eagles is huge. You know it. They know it. The Eagles know it.
"You have to understand the ball is going to be important in this game," said Romo, one of only two players on the team – Jason Witten the other – who have been with the Cowboys for all five of their playoff games this century. "You need something defensively or for the special teams to have a play or two."
Remember back to 1991. The Cowboys defense recorded a safety and the special teams the punt return for a touchdown. He knows what he's talking about in games like this.
Romo would then add: "It's going to be a great game. They're a great football team. We're a great football team."
Now, darn it, the Cowboys must just stay on the table to make it a great night.