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Spagnola: Playoffs Still In Realm Of Possibilities


FRISCO, Texas – Crazy, man.

The Cowboys have lost three consecutive games.

They have lost four of their last five and seven of their last 10.

They own but a 6-7 record, their worst record since sitting 4-9 after 13 games during the mostly Romo-less 2015 season.

Yet with three games to go, the Cowboys still are in first place in the NFC East, no matter what the outcome of Monday night's 5-7 Eagles' game against the New York Giants.

If the Eagles win, breaking a three-game losing streak of their own, they will be tied with the Cowboys for first place in the East, though technically the Cowboys would be a half-game up on them, owning the head-to-head advantage on the strength of their 37-10 victory in the first of their annual two meetings.

If the Eagles lose, then the 6-7 Cowboys still will be a game up on the 5-8 Eagles with three games to play, and still owning that temporary one-game advantage in the head-to-head first tiebreaker.

Having said all that, for all intents and purposes, this ragged, two-team NFC East crawl most likely will come down to Cowboys at Philadelphia on Dec. 22, a good chance the winner of that game will win the division title and the fourth-seed in the NFC playoffs for a much happier Christmas. The loser most likely will have an unhappy New Year.

We know the Cowboys will play the resurgent Los Angeles Rams this Sunday at AT&T Stadium, the defending NFC champs standing 8-5, riding a two-game winning streak. After that, the Cowboys play Round 2 with the Eagles and then back home for the season finale against the Redskins (3-10).

As for the Eagles, following Monday night's game against the Giants in Philly, they at Washington, home for the Cowboys and finish at the Giants, meeting for the second time in four weeks.

So here is the easiest way to figure out how the Cowboys can become the first team since the Eagles in 2003-04 to win back-to-back NFC East titles.

If the Eagles take care of business Monday night against the Giants, then the Cowboys can clinch the division title by winning two of the next three games, as long as one of those wins is over the Eagles. That would at least leave the Cowboys 8-8, meaning the Eagles could not finish any better than 8-8 with that loss. The Cowboys are awarded first place on the basis of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Now, if the Eagles lose one of their next two games, all the Cowboys would need to do is beat the Eagles on Dec. 22 to clinch the division title, and actually could win the division at no better than 7-9, again, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Of course, the Cowboys winning out certainly simplifies all these scenarios. But you can't do that unless first of all you beat the Rams Sunday afternoon. And that's exactly where head coach Jason Garrett's focus is.

"The biggest thing we have to do is just focus on getting one win, and not worry about the implications of that win," Garrett said when asked the importance of simply winning one to break this three-game losing streak. "Get back to work and prepare the right way, starting on Monday.

"The guys comes come back in here, have a helluva week of practice, one day at a time, our preparation for the Rams game."


Short of either team winning out and getting to 9-7, this will go down as the worst record to win the NFC East in it's 50-season history, going back to the 1970 season. Previously, the worst record to win the East is the 9-7 of the Redskins in 2015 and the 9-7 of the Giants in 2011 – the year they won Super Bowl XLVI.

This all reminds me of the 1990 Cowboys season. They were coming off that 1989 horrendous 1-15 beginning to the Jerry-Jimmy Era. But after a 3-7 start in '90, the Cowboys went on a four-game winning streak, pushing their record to 7-7, and all they needed to claim the then third of three wild-card berths into the playoffs was to win one of their final two games – at Philadelphia, at Atlanta – or for the Saints to lose one of their last two games.

Well, second-year quarterback Troy Aikman suffered a separated shoulder during the first quarter when Eagles defensive lineman Clyde Simmons landed on him. That left the game in the hands of backup quarterback Babe Laufenberg, who ended up the Dallas backup that season after the Cowboys traded previous backup Steve Walsh to, of all teams, the Saints, three games into the season.

The Cowboys would lose to the Eagles, 17-3, that day without Aikman, and of all things, the 6-8 Saints defeated 13-1 San Francisco, 13-10.

On to Atlanta the following Sunday without Aikman, done for the season. The Cowboys no-showed on that rainy Sunday, losing 26-7. Yet at 7-9, if the 7-8 Saints lost their season finale to the Rams in a Monday night game, finishing tied with Dallas at 7-9, the Cowboys would have been awarded the final NFC wild-card berth on the basis of defeating Walsh and the Saints on Dec. 2, 17-13.

How crazy would that have been?
Well, it got much crazier. Because with the Rams tying the game at 17 with just more than a minute left, of all things, Walsh, with 41 seconds remaining, completes a 34-yard pass to get the Saints in field-goal range.

Even crazier? With 5 seconds left, the Rams blocked Morten Andersen's 29-yard field-goal attempt, only to be called offsides. And with only two ticks left in the entire 1990 season on the last day of the year 1990, Andersen hits from 24 yards out, giving the Saints a 20-17 victory and the final wild-card berth at 8-8.

At 7-9, the Cowboys were left to contemplate "what if" Aikman had not been hurt. Or "what if" the Rams had not been offsides. Or "what if" the 49ers (14-2) the previous week had not lost only their second game all season.

The next day, Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson, voted AP Coach of the Year for his team's one-year, six-game improvement, said, "I don't wonder about what if. I know what if. If Troy Aikman had been healthy, we would have won both (games)."

Still, imagine that, a Cowboys team almost still qualifying for the playoffs with, of all things, a 7-9 record.