Spagnola: Nothing's Ever Easy Trying To Run The Table Into The Playoffs

FRISCO, Texas – And now for the home stretch.

         The Cowboys have four games left:

  • At the 2-10 New York Giants, noon Sunday at MetLife, with GM Jerry Reese fired, Ben McAdoo becoming the first Giants midseason head coach fired since Bill Arnsparger in 1976 and Cousin Steve (Spagnuolo, OK, kidding) now in command, along with the possibility Eli Manning will be back under center.
  • At the Oakland Raiders, after seemingly falling off the cliff, winners of four of their past six games to draw even at 6-6.
  • Home against the suddenly resurgent Seattle Seahawks, winning three of their last four and moving solidly into the playoff race at 8-4, currently one of the two NFC wild-card teams but breathing down the necks of the 9-3, NFC West first-place L.A. Rams.
  • At the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles on New Year's Eve, and wouldn't you know it, just when you felt the need to cheer for the Eagles to keep Seattle within shouting distance of the Cowboys in a wild-card race, the Iggles throw down a real clunker in the Great Northwest, playing their worst game of the season Sunday night to fall to 10-2, now tied with the Vikings for the top spot in the NFC, but only one game ahead of the Rams and Saints.

But the Cowboys, at 6-6, they can't afford to worry about all them others out there. They can only worry about themselves as they get back to work after the long weekend following last Thursday night's convincing – possibly season-resuscitating – victory over the Washington Redskins.

So then, with the Eagles holding a four-game lead over the Cowboys in the NFC East with four games to play, chances of winning the NFC East would seem rather remote. That means the Cowboys' potential path to the playoffs for a second consecutive season would be through a wild-card berth. But here are the cold, hard facts on that route:

Seattle and Carolina at 8-4 are the current wild-card frontrunners in the NFC. Then Comes Atlanta at 7-5. Next, the Cowboys are in a 6-6 cluster outside the top six along with Green Bay and Detroit.

That then means if we are being reasonable people, the Cowboys need to run the table, meaning finish out the season on a five-game winning streak. But again, the Cowboys must win two in a row before they can win five in a row.

And that will be head coach Jason Garrett's message to his troops when they get back at it Tuesday.

"The biggest thing we need to do is focus on what we need to do to play our best football, and that's all about our preparation – each day is critical to prepare your best to play on Sunday," Garrett says. "And then once you get there you have to fight through some different adversities. The games are not always going to go smoothly. They're not always going to go your way. You're going to have some success in games, but you have to keep playing. You're going to have some adversity, and you've got to keep playing.

"I thought our team did a good job of that the other night."

The Cowboys did, because that first quarter in the 38-14 victory over the Redskins resembled the previous 12 quarters during that three-game losing streak. Four straight three-and-outs. Struggling to run the ball. Struggling to throw the ball.

Only change was, the Cowboys defense kept playing, forcing two Redskins punts and ending another possession with an interception. As Garrett said, they fought through some adversities.

And that's what it's going to take the rest of the way. Just stick your foot in the dirt, no matter what, and keep playing. This stuff is not easy. And by no means is winning five consecutive games in this league, no matter how good you might be, easy. It's hard.

You have to have the stomach to do it.

The Cowboys have done so with the playoff pressure on five times in their history, four times winning five straight to end a season and one time actually winning six straight, that in 1978 to finish 12-4 and eventually land in Super Bowl XIII.

Now, the first time a run-the-table streak occurred was in 1968, the Cowboys finishing 12-2, heading into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, only to lose the Eastern Conference title to Cleveland, 31-20.

They did so again in 1970, turning 5-4 into 10-4 with a season-ending five-game winning streak to claim the very first NFC East Division championship in the first year of the NFL-AFL merger.

Next, let me take you to 1991. The Cowboys were 6-5, having lost three of their last four and two straight. On top of that, the next game was against the 11-0 Washington Redskins at old RFK Stadium. They were running out of time to end their five-year playoff drought.

But here came the Cowboys, beating the Redskins, 24-21, despite losing starting quarterback Troy Aikman early in the third quarter, and that was a Redskins team that went on to win Super Bowl XXVI. The victory became the impetus to the Cowboys then going on to beat Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, New Orleans and their former quarterback Steve Walsh, clinch a wild-card berth at Philadelphia and finish off the season with a win over Atlanta.

Pretty memorable, turning this franchise's fortunes around since the Cowboys won a first-round playoff game in Chicago, their first playoff victory in nine years.

Then there was 1993. The Cowboys lost the opening two games of the season without Emmitt Smith, unsigned in a contract dispute with owner Jerry Jones. They would win seven straight following Emmitt's return in Game 3. But then came the two-game stumble, losing to Atlanta and then Miami in that memorable icy Thanksgiving Day game when Leon Lett slid into the blocked field goal.

So the Cowboys were 7-4, and head coach Jimmy Johnson told his defending Super Bowl champs if they wanted to win back-to-back Super Bowls they needed to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And to do that they would have to run the table in the final five games to get to 12-4.

And boy did he grind his team, and the players will tell you to this day, grind them as hard as he ever had. So they began by beating Philly, won at Minnesota, beat the Jets and Washington to pull to 11-4 with one game to go – at the Giants.

         But the game wasn't just to claim home-field advantage in the playoffs, it was to merely win the NFC East, both teams standing 11-4. Lose, and the Cowboys would have been a wild-card team.

         Well, the Cowboys won, but not until Eddie Murray kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime for the 16-13 victory did the Cowboys finish off the much-needed five-game winning streak.

         Of course, we're not equating this Cowboys 5-6 team to the defending Super Bowl champs at the 11-game mark. But the exhausting challenge is the same: Need to win five straight to give yourself a chance.

         Well, the Cowboys have won one straight. And they need not do anything more than put their heads down and plow ahead, and, as you will hear Garrett say time and time again, "Focus on ourselves," or "focus on today's practice." You've heard it before. You'll hear it again.

         Basically, stick your foot in the dirt when adversity strikes, because it will. Go ask that 1993 team. Go ask those guys what they were thinking that late afternoon against the Giants when Emmitt suffered the shoulder separation with 1:58 left in the first half when Giants safety Greg Jackson – yes, this Greg Jackson, Cowboys safeties coach – drove him into the turf on a tackle.

         But on the game-winning, 52-yard field-goal drive, Emmitt touched the ball on nine of 12 plays, gaining 41 of the yards, including the final five to set up Murray's 41-yard field goal, his teammates helping him up off the ground each time after being tackled.

         This stuff ain't easy. By no means.

         Yep, here we go. 

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