FRISCO, Texas – All week long, the big question being posed with the Cowboys facing the Seattle Seahawks in Saturday night's wild-card playoff game has been this:
Yep, what's changed for the Dallas Cowboys since they ran smack-dab into these same Seahawks the third game of the season, up there in the Great Northwest by the way, when the 24-13 score suggests they were soundly beaten, falling to 1-2?
What's changed to suggest now 14 games later the Cowboys even have a chance of knocking off this 10-6 Seattle team having won six of its last seven games to qualify as the first wild-card team, or fifth seed to the fourth-seeded Cowboys in these NFC playoffs?
Well, let me tell you this:
Let's start right here, with this game being played at AT&T Stadium, 7:15 p.m., the Cowboys hoping 90,000-some fans turn the expansive place into their own version of the white house and not at CenturyLink as was the earlier meeting this year.
Now then, for more tangible changes.
In that game, Cowboys second-year free safety Xavier Woods was starting his first NFL game at that position, injury sidelining him the first two games of the season.
Starting three-technique defensive tackle Maliek Collins sprained his knee in Game 2 against the Giants, and was inactive in that game, keeping Tyrone Crawford, now the starting defensive end since Game 8, at that spot and Taco Charlton starting at the right end spot.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, finishing second on the club with six sacks this season, at that time was playing limited snaps, his first snaps after playing just two games over the previous two seasons and who was not part of the team until the NFL reinstated him at the start of training camp.
Starting nose tackle Antwaun Woods, who had played one game in the NFL before the start of the season, was playing in just his fourth NFL, but now has started 15 games this year.
Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones, who played some corner his rookie season, but started at free safety the next two years, was starting just his third game at corner since having played there in 2015.
Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who now leads the team with 176 tackles, had all of 45 NFL snaps under his belt going into that game, but now has started 11 of the last 13 games.
Guard Connor Williams, at all of 21 years of age, was starting just his third NFL game at a position he hadn't played in college at the University of Texas where he was a tackle, but now looks as if he will be back starting at left guard with Xavier Su'a-Filo listed as doubtful (ankle), making his 11th NFL start.
Rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup, part of that failed receiver-by-committee concept, had just 44 NFL snaps to his credit, but now has become the team's No. 2 wide receiver and has caught 20 passes over the past eight games and also the game-winning two-point conversion in last Sunday's victory over the Giants, while becoming more of a deep threat, too.
The tight ends active that game: Geoff Swaim, starting just his third NFL game; Blake Jarwin, playing in just his third NFL game and by the 16th won NFC Offensive Player of the Week this past Sunday against the Giants; and Rico Gathers appearing in just his second NFL game.
Need more change?
Well, how about Marc Colombo replacing veteran offensive line coach Paul Alexander as the lead dude, bringing harmony, intensity and physicality to that group.
And . . . oh yeah, some guy named Amari Cooper on that Sept. 23 was playing wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders not the Dallas Cowboys, who traded next year's first-round pick for the two-time Pro Bowl receiver during the Week 8 bye, and all he's done since arriving is lead the Cowboys over the final eight games with 53 catches for a team-high 725 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
Change? Glad you asked.
Then as a team, the one losing two of its first three games, has now won seven of the past eight.
The defense finished seventh in the NFL, an improvement from its eighth spot last year. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence led the team with 10½ sacks, his second consecutive double-digit sack season. Over the first 15 games of the season, only Tennessee has scored more than Seattle's 24 points that day against the Cowboys.
Since Cooper arrived, this team, with a struggling offense the first half of the season when only once scoring more than 26, has scored at least 27 points in five of the final eight games.
See, few wanted to recognize this that first half of the season, and especially in the third game of the season, but this was an awfully young football team that has grown before our very eyes. Improved. Became a more cohesive bunch.
Just listen to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who is referring to his defense, but could have been referring just as well to the entire team, when he said, "I've seen my men grow."
Then later he would say, "We've become a veteran defense over the season with young guys."
Another thing or two to remember. You keep hearing how Dak was intercepted twice by Earl Thomas in that earlier meeting. Well, recall one was a Gallup dropped pass that landed at his shoe tips and the other was one over the middle to Blake Jarwin that was batted around before landing in his lap. The fumble lost? Man, Zeke was motoring inside the red zone, and got hit from behind when it seemed he might score. Also, don't forget the apparent TD pass from Dak to Zeke on third-and-2 from the Seattle ruled 31 that was waved off because Zeke inadvertently had stopped out of bounds before he caught the pass, the series ending in a 50-yard Brett Maher field goal instead.
Just one thing after another in that game, including with four seconds left in the half, a Gregory roughing the QB penalty moved the ball 15 yards up field, close enough for Sebastian Janikowski to end the half with a 47-yard field goal.
Well, now we find out just how much this young team has grown since that third week of the season. Regular-season games are one thing, but playoffs certainly are another. And as Dak Prescott said the other day when asked if he thinks it's fair quarterbacks are judged by what they do in the playoffs, "I think it's everything. I don't pay attention to any stat but wins and losses. So, you say that a quarterback's success depends on what they do in the playoffs – yeah, that's where the checks get written and they make their money, to be honest."
And fair or not fair, results in these playoff games will determine how this 2018 Cowboys team is judged, no matter how they resurrected what appeared to be a lost season into playing Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.
Just remember, things have changed for this Cowboys team over the past 15 weeks. They are not the same team Seattle beat 24-13 in Week 3. Not even close.
And when they win Saturday night, this just might mean these young Cowboys have changed for good.