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Spagnola: Not Time To Relax Until The Cowboys Absolutely Finish The Fight

FRISCO, Texas – Merry Christmas, Dallas Cowboys.

         Twelve is enough.

         Enough victories to win the NFC East for the second time in three years.

         Enough to earn a first-round bye.

         Enough to become the top seed in the NFC and snatch the accompanying home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, along with home-state advantage if they can manage to reach Super Bowl LI, to be played just a drive down I-45 in Houston.

         Seriously, after all this team has been through since there were 4 minutes, 6 seconds left on Jan, 11, 2015, at the 3-yard line in Lambeau, the exact location of that reversed call, then the agonizing loss of Tony Romo – twice – in 2015 and that ensuing 4-12 record, the loss of Romo again before this 2016 season ever began, the season-opening suspensions to two potential starting defensive ends and facing the prospect of starting a rookie quarterback drafted at the end of the fourth round, did I really just let the S-word slip out of my mouth?

         Fa la la la la, la la la la.

         OK, that's enough. As you were. Two games left, got to go play. That's right, to PLAY. This is way too early to rest, and definitely not the day after Christmas when the 12-2 Cowboys, with a huge weight lifted off their shoulders, will meet the desperate Detroit Lions (9-5) on Monday night at AT&T Stadium.

         And make no mistake, while the Philadelphia Eagles gave the Cowboys a little assist Thursday night, beating the New York Disappointed Giants, 24-19, the Cowboys earned this division title and distinction as the top seed in the NFL by winning more games already this season than any other team in the NFC can earn with two games to play.

          But by no means does this mean the Cowboys should put this thing in neutral. Oh no, they've got to go play Monday night. They've got to keep their edge. Remember, it wasn't but two weeks ago that the sky was falling. After winning 10 consecutive games, the Cowboys only defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 17-15, and needed to foil a two-point conversion in the final seconds to emerge victors.

         Then, for heaven's sakes, they actually lost a game the next time out, ending an 11-game winning streak, falling to those Giants, 10-7. Oh, the noise. Two sub-par games, and many a finger was poised above the panic button. Or was that the Dak Button.

         But not Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott or the rest of these Cowboys, putting a sock in all of that with a 26-20 victory this past Sunday over the streaking Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6), their 12th win in the past 13 games.

         So to me, no sense letting any air out of this balloon, letting any of this momentum subside by playing screw-around against the Lions, by not putting their best foot forward, er, best players forward and trying their level best to match the franchise's single-season high for victories. They need to treat this Monday night game against the Lions as if the season depends upon it.

         What's taken place so far is only part of the journey.

         Way, way too early to take their foot off the pedal in these final two games. Think about it, once the regular season concludes on New Year's Day in Philadelphia, the Cowboys, with that first-round bye in their hip pocket, will not play again until the weekend of Jan. 14-15. So if they do not take these final two games seriously, there would be nearly a month between any games of consequence, from this past Sunday, Dec. 18, until those dates in January. Like 27 or 28 days.

         That would be a serious no-no.

         So Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett set the tone early Friday morning when the guys showed up for what amounted to a Thursday schedule knowing they were in the NFC driver's seat.

         "We had a short team meeting this morning, and really we talked about the daily schedule, addressed it, congratulated our guys, but again, our focus is on what we needed to do today to prepare to play our best football Monday night," Garrett said.

         Now, if he said that once during the course of his Friday morning press conference out here at The Star, and then again when taping his Dallas Cowboys Radio Network pregame interview, he must have said it at least 20 times, steadfast in his approach toward these final two games, and especially Monday night's.

         And evidently the guys were listening, and not only the guys, but the most important guys who have a say in this situation in that locker room.

         "Honestly, I think the team has a clear understanding," said offensive co-captain Jason Witten. "Coach Garrett did a good job of explaining where we're at.

         "We want to keep our edge, keep our momentum."

         That's what I'm talking about.

         There is no right way or wrong way to handle this early-clinching business, deciding between continuing to play to win and resting players.

         This just happens to be the sixth time in franchise history the Cowboys have earned the top seed in the NFC since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Three times they have gone on to win the Super Bowl, during the seasons of 1977, 1993 and 1995. But in 1993 and 1995 the Cowboys didn't clinch the top seed until the final game of the season, and in 1993, not until beating the Giants, 16-13, in overtime of the final game of the season just to win the NFC East.

         Now the two other times, in 1979 and 2007, the Cowboys lost their first playoff game following the bye in the divisional round. The Cowboys, though, had to win the final regular-season game of 1979 over Washington just to qualify for the playoffs.

         But in 2007, the Cowboys clinched early. But they significantly pulled back in the season finale against a Washington team desperate to win and claim a wild-card berth. Well, the Cowboys predictably gave an uninspired effort, losing to the Redskins, 27-6. The performance was so bad that cold and rainy day at FedExField when they pulled starting quarterback Tony Romo after the first series of the third quarter that they managed to rush for only three feet. That's right, one yard.

         Then after the bye, the Cowboys were beaten by the Giants, a team they had defeated twice during the regular season, 21-17, squandering a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter.[embeddedad0]

         So guarantee you how the Cowboys handled those 1993 and 1995 top seeds, along with that one in 2007, are implanted in Garrett's mental Rolodex.

         The biggest benefit of clinching the top seed this early becomes buying time to heal injured players. And the Cowboys have been dealing with a bunch a of late. They had seven players listed as Did Not Practice on Friday's official injury report, though third quarterback Mark Sanchez missed to attend the funeral of a high school friend. Of the other six, Morris Claiborne (groin), Cedric Thornton (high ankle sprain) and DeMarcus Lawrence (back) all missed this past Sunday night's game and hadn't practice all last week. No need rushing those guys back.

         Also missing were Tyron Smith (back/knee), Justin Durant (elbow) and Tyrone Crawford (shoulder). Of the three, Smith would seem to have the best chance of playing Monday night since he either missed or was limited all last week but played against Tampa Bay.

         No need to rush any of them back, either, and be great to have a full deck come the second round of the playoffs in mid-January.

         The only potential downside of beating Detroit would be the Giants, now 10-5, would then secure a wild-card berth into the playoffs, no matter if they finish the season with a win over Washington or not. And as we know, so far the Giants are the only team to beat these Cowboys this season. And even Washington (7-6-1) still has a slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs, needing to win out, which would include beating the Giants in the season finale, and then hoping Tampa Bay and Green Bay lose at least once or the Lions lose out.

         "The less we know in here the better," Witten suggested with a smile.

         Maybe that, though, is the key because as Witten is well aware of – and he is one of the few players on the team who was here in 2007, along with Tony Romo, L.P. Ladouceur and Doug Free – they don't hand out any trophies for earning the No. 1 seed. Not even a banner.

         Just a darn T-shirt and cap for winning the NFC East, and heck, you can go buy those already at the Pro Shops. You don't even need to play a down, right "Witt"?

         So, yep, just go play.

         And maybe this time Finish The Dadgum Fight.

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