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Spagnola: 'Just win' playoff mentality starts now


FRISCO, Texas – After all this, after 16 games, just more than four months, going 8-0 in home games and just 3-5 in road games. After a five-game winning streak and a two-game losing streak. After losing Trevon Diggs and Leighton Vander Esch for the season yet riding the likes of Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons and DaRon Bland, to name just a few. After ending up with seven Pro Bowlers, two of those special teamers leading the league in their individual categories, and after surviving those Lions' three two-point conversion attempts with 23 seconds left to win by one point, this 2023 NFL season comes down to this for the Dallas Cowboys:

Beat Washington Sunday at FedEx Field to finish 12-5 for the third consecutive year and win the NFC East title for the second time in three years and the third time in the past five years.

That simple. Doesn't matter what the 11-5 Philadelphia Eagles do at the New York Giants starting at the same 3:25 p.m. time on Sunday. Doesn't matter that at one point the then 10-1 Eagles had a two-game lead on the 8-3 Cowboys after Week 12 of the season.

Just win, baby. And even if the Cowboys and Eagles finish tied at 12-5 come around 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, the Cowboys win the title on the fourth tiebreaker – their better NFC record, 9-3 to 8-4. The difference being the Cowboys beat Seattle and the Eagles did not, which also prevented the Eagles from becoming the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since 2001-04.

But look, it's the Washingtons, just 4-12, losers of their past seven games. And if ever a franchise wanted to tank to preserve NFL Draft position, it would be the Commanders, currently owning the No. 2 pick that possibly could drop out of the top five, depending on what other teams at 4-12 or 5-11 do and tiebreakers.

But that doesn't matter either to the Cowboys. Just go win.

"We understand the magnitude of this game, what it is what it means," said the Pro Bowl quarterback Prescott, who leads the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and has thrown just eight interceptions – three in one game, so just five in the other 15. Meaning he has been picked off on just 1.4 percent of his 554 attempts, proving all those naysayers so wrong after the 15-interception season of last year, a total anomaly, with about half of those not on him.

"We got one game to go win the division."

Dak would continue: "For us, it's about going and running our race again this weekend."

Head down. Not looking sideways. Hit the tape. Look up and see where you're at.

That's what the Cowboys have done all season. Run through this finish line and not only do the Cowboys win the NFC East, but they finish with the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, accompanied by a first-round home playoff game. Win that, guaranteed a second-round home playoff game.

Do that and the Cowboys break another season-finale jinx that has persisted five times since Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson first came rambling down that Valley Ranch hill on MacArthur Boulevard back in 1989 when two future Pro Football Hall of Fame careers began rather inauspiciously with that opening 1-15 season. This jinx losing so many win-and-you're-in playoff chances in that final regular-season game of the year.

First happened that 1990 season. Even though the Cowboys were sitting 7-8 with one game to go after reeling off a four-game winning streak to reach 7-7 with two games left, a stunning NFL revival. But as fate would have it, Tory Aikman separated his shoulder in Game 15, a loss to Philadelphia. Still, had they won Game 16 with backup QB Babe Laufenberg starting, the Cowboys would have qualified as a wild-card team at 8-8. Well, they didn't, losing to Atlanta in the rain, 26-7. And even then, at 7-9, they would have grabbed that final wild-card berth had the Rams beat the Saints in the absolute final game of the season. They didn't, Saints kicker Morten Andersen hitting a 24-yard field goal with two seconds left on New Year's Eve to grab the final wild-card spot at 8-8.

Then in 2008, after quarterback Tony Romo missed three games and backup Brad Johnson went only 2-1, losing to the then winless St. Louis Rams, the playoffs were still in the balance coming down to the final game. If the Cowboys beat Philly, they would earn a wild-card berth at 10-6. But they didn't, getting walloped, 44-6, and the Eagles grabbing the berth by finishing 9-6-1, a half-game ahead of the 9-7 Cowboys.

Then came the three-in-a-row, final-game, win-and-you're-in defeats from 2011-13. First with the Giants in 2011, both teams entering the finale at 8-7. The Giants beat the Cowboys, 31-14, in East Rutherford, N.J., to win the East and actually went on to the Super Bowl XLVI. The Cowboys finished 8-8 and in third place, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones quoted afterward as saying, "It's extremely painful and it's a damn shame."

Then again in 2012. Another win-and-you're-in Game 16 showdown, this time at Washington. Washington was 9-6. The Cowboys 8-7. Win the game, and with both teams finishing 9-7, the Cowboys win the NFC East and are in the playoffs. No can do, losing to rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, 28-18. Washington wins the East for the first time since 1999. At 8-8, the Cowboys miss the playoffs … once more.

Oh no, not again in 2013. The season come downs to the final game, this time at AT&T Stadium. The 8-7 Cowboys vs. 9-6 Eagles. Win and the Cowboys win the East with both teams finishing 9-7. But this one was complicated. While the Cowboys won Game 15 at Washington on a valiant comeback effort by quarterback Tony Romo, throwing the winning touchdown pass to running back DeMarco Murray with 1:08 remaining, Romo had "tweaked" his back at some point during the game, at best telling me on the walk to the bus "We'll see" when asked if he could play in the final game.

Well, they saw, Romo having back surgery mid-week, forcing backup Kyle Orton to start the game, his first since 2011 and having only thrown 15 mop-up duty passes all season. Oh, no DeMarcus Ware either, hyperextended elbow. Cowboys lose again, this time 24-22. Eagles win the East. Cowboys 8-8 and out of the playoffs a third consecutive year.

Since Jones bought the team in 1989, the Cowboys did win a couple of these winner-takes-a-lot games in the final game of the season. First in 1993, the Cowboys prevailing against the Giants, 16-13, in overtime to win the East and top seed in the NFC playoffs at 12-4, as it turned out Jimmy's final season with the Cowboys going on to win Super Bowl XXVIII. Did so again in 1995, winning the final game of the season on Christmas, but that was to capture home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Then again in 2009, shutting out the Eagles 24-0 at home to win the East at 11-5, then beating the Eagles again the next week in the wild-card round.

But that is it.

And now comes Sunday at Washington. The Cowboys know they already have qualified for the playoffs, at least as the No. 5 seed. The only difference in this game being the Commanders, unlike the Eagles, Giants and back then Redskins from 2011-13, have nothing on the line. This is all on the Cowboys, and mostly thanks to them beating the Eagles in the season's rematch, 33-13, on Dec. 10, followed by the Eagles losing New Year's Eve, 35-31, to Arizona, thus leaving both teams 11-5 heading into Game 17.

Now, if both teams lose the Cowboys still win the East. But a loss to the Commanders and an Eagles win over the Giants, a 2024 horror story for sure, would be disaster, relegating the Cowboys to a wild-card team, the fifth seed in the NFC, and having to play a first-round game on the road at the eventual winner of the NFC South, at this point either Tampa Bay (8-8), New Orleans (8-8) or Atlanta (8-8).

And for a team having won all their home games, with a losing record on the road, beating the Commanders still is huge.

Or as Jones is saying, "Make no mistake about it, this is a playoff game we play on Sunday. We have to win this game."

Evidently, the word has spread through the locker room.

"This is the playoffs," safety Jayron Kearse emphatically said. "Our playoffs start a week early."

"The playoffs start for us this week," nine-time Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin concurred. "It's a must-win for us."

Not exactly one of those winner-takes-all games. But for sure winner-takes-a-lot.

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