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Spagnola: Hoping division title just a first step


LANDOVER, Md. – There is a boatload to like about Cowboys 38, Commanders 10.

Start with the resiliency after two fluke-ish plays, falling behind 10-7 to a now 4-13 team late Sunday afternoon, yet recovering to score on five of their final six possessions. And the one they didn't, Brandon Aubrey's first own missed field of the season bouncing off the left upright, though coming back on the final possession to hit from 50 yards.

Let's see, Dak Prescott threw for 279 yards and four touchdowns, stretching his NFL-lead to a final 36 scoring throws with 98 of those yards to CeeDee Lamb, including two of those touchdowns. Lamb finished with 12 receiving scores for the season, third most in the NFL and the most by a Cowboys player since Dez Bryant's 16 in 2014.

Why, the Cowboys ran the ball, by golly, for 131 yards, highest in the last four games, and held Washington to just 50.

Cornerback DaRon Bland solidified his NFL interception title with his ninth pick, a twisting, contorting grab to snuff out another Washington possession inside the 10-yard line.

Need more?

This was most impressive: The Cowboys won without Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin, quite ill before the game (flu-like symptoms), and also left guard Tyler Smith (torn plantar fascia). Rookie T.J. Bass went left and first-year lineman Brock Hoffman learned he was starting like 90 minutes before kickoff to the right.

With these backups in there, Dak was not sacked once for the first time in six games. And for the first time all season, he never had to run out of the pocket even once to escape pressure, starting center Tyler Biadasz saying, "We didn't blink at all," meaning needing to pull back from their original game plan to compensate for the two missing starters.

The Cowboys showed they can win on the road – although if there really were 63,645 people here at sparsely filled FedEx Field, the vast majority were wearing Cowboys blue, more akin to what you would see at AT&T Stadium – pulling their record to 4-5 this season.

Hey, they won on grass, too, if that is a concern, and in cold, windy conditions.

All of that, and why the Cowboys with their third consecutive 12-5 season won the NFC East for the second time in three years and were not even aware of the Eagles going down to the Giants, Philadelphia dropping its fifth game in the past six, relegated to second place in the East at 11-6 and now the fifth seed. This also means once again no team has won consecutive NFC East titles in the past 19 seasons.

 The Cowboys earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, meaning they will play the seventh seed, their Green Bay playoff nemesis, at 3:25 p.m. at AT&T Stadium where they have won 16 consecutive games. And the Cowboys are assured of a second-round home game if they can stretch that winning streak to 17.

Just all of that.

But you know what was most impressive to me?

They acted as if this was no big deal. As if this is what they were supposed to do. And you know what, really is. Come on, these were the Commanders, now losers of eight consecutive games, and even if this was the division game.

Maybe they celebrated on the field when the clock struck 00:00, but coming off the field into the locker room, there was no yelling and screaming. No big hoopla. Some manly hugs.

Didn't hear any, "How 'bout them Cowboys!" echoing through the locker room walls. No one was playing "We Are The Champions." They acted as if this was but the first step, winning the NFC East, in a journey they set forth from the start of training camp to do something Super.

"It's time to be phenomenal," said Micah Parsons, getting his 14th sack to break through from the 13s his first two seasons. "There is no tomorrow."

And about taking this division crown in stride, he looked me in the eye, saying matter-of-factly, "We're not settling for where we're at. We know there is more out there. We needed this."

After all, for the guys who have been with the Cowboys since Dak's 2016 rookie year, (only four of them), or here from 2018 (eight of them), and even here since 2021 (and that's 24 of them), they've been-here-done-that in winning the division crown. Since 2016, this is the team's fourth NFC East title in eight years and third straight playoff appearance under head coach Mike McCarthy, a first for the Cowboys since 1992-96.

But none of these guys have advanced past the second round, losing in the division round three of four times.

By the time the locker room was emptying out, these guys were already on to Monday, coming in and getting ready for a wild-card round game against the 9-8 Packers. And how delicious is that? Former Packers' Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike McCarthy now having to play the franchise he spent 13 seasons with in the first step toward this franchise finally advancing to the NFC title game – something the Cowboys have failed to do since 1995.

That's 27 seasons.

That's over 12 playoff appearances.

At the time, after finding out they would be playing Green Bay, the team eliminating him his rookie year, Dak, who completed 31 of 36 pass attempts, four of those completions for touchdowns and a batted pass at the line of scrimmage intercepted, stated, "This moment, this time. It doesn't matter who we play."

While the offense was on fire, finishing with 10 plays of 15-plus yards and 440 total yards, second highest this season – as it should have done against a personnel-depleted Commanders defense – the Cowboys defense was superb. In fact, if it wasn't for the Cowboys two turnovers, the blocked field goal attempt returned to the Dallas 20-yard line, leading to Washington's only touchdown, and then the tipped pass at the line of scrimmage intercepted leading to Washington's only field goal, the defense would have pitched a shutout. This was the sixth time holding an opponent this year to no more than 10 points.

Why, the Cowboys finished with four sacks of quarterback Sam Howell, their most since four on Thanksgiving against Washington, and their first time in five games with more than one, giving them 46 this season. The defense held the Commanders to just 180 yards, the third fewest in 2023, previously holding the Giants to 171 and then 172. The 50 yards rushing is the season low.

And if we count the blocked punt by Peyton Hendershot as a takeaway, the Cowboys finished with four of them, interceptions by Bland and Donovan Wilson, his second in two games, and the Jourdan Lewis forced fumble he recovered.

Like it, like it.

But again, this is exactly what the Cowboys should have done to a Washington franchise firing head coach Ron Rivera by the time most woke up on Black Monday morning.

The Cowboys now head into the playoffs on a two-game winning streak, one at home against a quality opponent (Detroit 12-5) and a fourth win on the road, on grass and against a division opponent to finish 5-1 in the NFC East. That's while outscoring the division, 228-78, the fewest points given up since the 77 when sweeping the East in 1998, the only loss this season, 28-23, at Philadelphia.

Now time to break this long streak of unfinished business.

First, division title? Check.

Next playoff games at home? Check.

Entering the playoff with confidence growing? Check.

Why so?

"Hope, faith, belief, trust," McCarthy said. "All those things. That's what you're building over the course of an 18-week season. So just the everyday sweat equity, workload capacity, the connection is strong. It's as strong of a locker room that I've been around. That gives us the opportunity to compete and win.

"Hope is a powerful thing."

Like that very much, too.

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