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Spagnola: On Your Mark, Get Set For Playoffs


FRISCO, Texas – Let's go.

This is what's it's all about, right? The playoffs. A word the Cowboys couldn't even spell at this time last year if you had spotted them the P, the L and the A, the word non-existent at the time in their 6-10 vocabulary of 2020.

What a difference a year makes.

Here are the Cowboys, 12-5, now the No. 3 seed in the NFC thanks to demolishing the Philadelphia JV team, 51-26, on Saturday, in what was a tune-up game for the NFC East champs. But also to the San Francisco 49ers, impressively whipping the NFC West champion Rams, 27-24 in overtime to earn the second wild-card entry at 10-7.

So it's Cowboys-Niners, their eighth playoff edition debuting at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium but for the first time since Jan. 15, 1995. That 38-28 49ers victory at Candlestick Park 28 seasons ago in the NFC title game denied the Cowboys the opportunity to Three-peat in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys have only played one playoff opponent more times, the Rams nine.

And while the Cowboys had defeated San Francisco in the previous two NFC Championship Games, how about this? Today, Jan. 10, 1982, is the 40-year anniversary of "The Catch," Montana-to-Clark in the final minute of that NFC title game for the 28-27 victory over the Cowboys.

That all was then; this is now. Their playoff history is steep but has nothing to do with this game. This is 2022. The Cowboys having won five of the last six games this 2021 season and the Niners having won four of the past five, including that heart-pounding season finale, recovering from a 17-0 deficit to devastate the Rams, the erstwhile second seeds just a week ago falling to the fourth at 12-5, behind Green Bay (13-4) Tampa Bay (13-4) and the Cowboys.

But you know what? What a difference 1 minute, 24 seconds made four months ago to the day on Sunday. That's all the time remaining in the 2021 NFL season opener Tampa Bay and Tom Brady needed to erase a Cowboys 29-28 lead to win 31-29 on a walk-field goal back on Sept. 9. Otherwise, the Cowboys might have been the second seed, and who knows, possibly the first, though the Packers likely would not have pulled their foot off the gas pedal that second half against Detroit Sunday by taking Aaron Rodgers out of the game had there still been something on the line, losing 37-30, the Lions scoring the last 10 points in the final two minutes of the game.

So yep, here we are, the NFL's initial 17-game season needing every last one of those games, and then the very last second of overtime in that one to boot Sunday night to settle this playoff scene.

Welcome, Dallas Cowboys, back to the party. But not the end all by any means.

"When this plane touches down in Dallas, that's the starting line," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said after the Cowboys secured their 12th win against an Eagles team having decided to sit all of their defensive starters and most of their offensive starters for injury, COVID and to preserve health reasons for the playoffs. "This is what we've been talking about since April, and we've had goals all along that we've hit."

Have a winning season. Check, the 12 wins matching the second most in team history, only the three seasons of a franchise-high 13 more.

Qualify for the playoffs. Check, this the fourth time in the past eight seasons, this first round being called Super Wild Card Weekend.

Win the NFC East. Check, not only winning the division title for the fourth time in eight years but whitewashing their opponents, finishing 6-0, only the second time in franchise history going undefeated in division play, the 8-0 of 1998 the only other time.

Now the big work begins.

Or as McCarthy reiterated, "We view this as the starting line."

Win a playoff game or two. Heaven forbid, like three, the last multiple playoff wins by a Cowboys team taking place during the 1995 Super Bowl XXX championship season.

No offense to those who had been touting last year's 7-9 Washington team as NFC East repeat champions or some of those setting over-under win limits on the Cowboys at nine, winning the East for these Cowboys was the expectation.

And why not? Dak Prescott would be back healthy, ready to go. The offensive line gang would be back together again. Ezekiel Elliott looked rejuvenated. CeeDee Lamb was no longer a rookie. Randy Gregory would be ready to go at the start of the season. Trevon Diggs was no longer a rookie. And the Cowboys spent their first-round pick on the best defensive player in the draft, the versatile Micah Parsons, that who knows might have turned out to be the very best player in the draft.

So, if new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn could remake last year's worst defense, giving up a franchise-high 473 points, into just an average unit, why, these Cowboys had the makings of something big. Quinn did that, and then some, the Cowboys finishing 14th in the NFL thanks to those 34 takeaways.

And here we are, now about to find out just how big.

Yet, the irony of this reclamation season becomes so many are holding their breath, satisfaction seemingly coming only from winning a sixth Super Bowl title. Wonder how many 6-10 teams have won a Super Bowl the next season?

But hey, these are the Cowboys, right? That's what they are supposed to do, their legacy hard to live up to, having once strung together those 20 consecutive winning seasons (1966-85) that included 18 playoff appearances, five Super Bowl appearances and winning two, two NFL Championship Games and 13 conference championship games.

Then after a slight lull from 1986-1990, the Cowboys cranked it up again with six consecutive playoff seasons (1991-96) with those three Super Bowl titles and four consecutive NFC title game appearances, reaffirming what seemed to be their inalienable right to compete in the playoffs every single year.

Since then, not so much. It's been only eight playoff appearances from 2000 to now, this 2021 season, with just a 3-7 playoff record, all three wins first-round wild card games.

So here we go, a first-round wild card game, once again the third seed for the third time since the turn of the century. And it's the Niners, the sixth seed. Had the Cowboys lost to Philadelphia Saturday, and that would have been nearly impossible since the Eagles waved the white flag before the game even began, or if the Rams had beaten San Francisco or Arizona had beaten Seattle, the Cowboys would have been the fourth seed, playing the fifth seed, which would have been either the Cards or the Rams.

But since neither of those teams could win their Game 17, it's Cowboys-Niners, having first met in the playoffs three consecutive years from 1970-72, the Cowboys winning all three games – two of those NFC title matchups – against their former assistant coach Dick Nolan's teams, Nolan eventually returning to the Cowboys for nine more seasons as an assistant (1982-90).

So be it, the Niners once again.

But hey it's the playoffs. Like neighbors, you don't get to choose your opponent. You don't get to play the Texans. Cream puffs not allowed. No matter the seed, a quality team awaits.

And now with this third seed, this just occurred to me: If the Cowboys win, and none of the wild-card teams win on the road, the third-seeded Cowboys would get the second-seeded Buccaneers for the right to play in the NFC title game. Wouldn't that be something?

A rematch of the NFL season opener, and recall what Prescott said to Brady as the two met after that scintillating game:

"We'll see ya'll again," inferring in the playoffs. How prophetic would that be?

But first things first.

"You have to win to keep going and we plan on doing that regardless of who we play or who we line up against," Dak said after his superlative performance Saturday night in Philly. "Obviously we're playing at home next week but if we have to travel after that, whatever.

"Line them up, we're ready to go, and we're going to look forward to making a good run."

In the P-L-A-Y-O-F-F-S.

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