Spagnola: The Young & Relentless East Champs

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Did you watch?

Did you see?

Were you really paying attention? Not doing last-minute online shopping or doing dinner prep for the next two days?

Just taking for granted the Cowboys would beat the struggling Bucs out here on Sunday afternoon?

Just asking.

And I get it, you darn well know by now Cowboys 27, Bucs 20, before 92,859 at a noisy AT&T Stadium.

That the Cowboys clinched their second NFC East title in three years and third in five years, more than the Eagles, Redskins or Giants have won in that period of time since the Eagles went four straight from 2001-04. That should count for something. And it's the first time an NFC East team has qualified for the playoffs twice in three years since the Eagles did so from 2008-10.

Now that should count for something, and once again afterward on Sunday Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told his team as those NFC East Champion hats were passed out to wear 'em proudly, then hand the hat to someone for Christmas.

"It's certainly something to be proud of," Garrett prefaced, "but hopefully the start of something."

But there is something more to cherish, to thoroughly understand what has taken place after that 3-5 start, then winning five straight, then getting shut out by the Colts but righting themselves to push their record to 9-6 with a meaningless game to play this coming Sunday against the NY Giants.

And Garrett didn't hesitate to point this out, "Like we talked about in the outset of the year, we are a young team."

Something no one has wanted to or is wanting to recognize this entire season, the fact that here on Sunday 29 of the team's 53 players are in more than their third season in the NFL.

Fact.

Fact, too: Youth is being served on this team, and certainly was prominent in this win over the Bucs (5-10). Think about it now.

That was Randy Gregory, a second-year player, producing the sack/fumble that Jaylon Smith picked up, going the other way 69 yards for a touchdown.

That was Randy Gregory recovering another fumble to set up the Cowboys first-and-goal at the 4 for what turned out to be the game-clinching touchdown.

That was rookie receiver Michael Gallup corralling that four-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott, a darn goal-to-go touchdown for a change, that gave the Cowboys a much-needed 27-13 cushion with 2:23 left in the third quarter.

That was Antwaun Woods, a first-year player who didn't join the team until May 30, making that lunging tackle of Jameis Winston from behind on fourth-and-6 at the 7, leaving him a yard short of the first down, and saying afterward, "By any means necessary, I had to get the job done," preserving a Cowboys' 27-13 lead.

Why that was defensive rookie of the year candidate Leighton Vander Esch finishing with a career-high 15 tackles, and possessing the good hands on the Bucs' onside kick attempt after narrowing the score to 27-20 with 2:05 left in the game, the Bucs probably thinking let's see what the rookie has but not knowing, as Garrett would say, "They kicked it to the wrong guy at the end of the game," pointing out LVE has the best hands on the "hands team."

That was Jaylon Smith, a second-year player, picking up that fumble and racing 69 yards for a touchdown, the Cowboys' first return touchdown of the season, and when asked before he left the locker room if no one else should ever ask him about his surgically reconstructed knee again, he said, "Tweet that out . . . you tweet that out."

And not to be forgotten, that was first-year kicker Brett Maher hitting his two field-goal attempts, following up the 62-yarder he made two weeks ago with one from 59 yards out to give the Cowboys a 17-6 lead.

Oh, and let's also remember the quarterback who completed 20 of 25 passes for 161 yards, one touchdown, finishing with a 106.8 QB rating, and the running back Ezekiel Elliott plugging away for 85 yards on 18 carries and catching another five passes for 24 yards – 109 yards from scrimmage – are a game away from finishing just their third seasons.

That's a lot of youth out there wouldn't you say.

"That's the great thing about this team," Dak says, "we are young . . . but we have to keep working."

Yes, they do. The offense had eight full possessions, but gained just 232 yards. At least, though, the offense scored touchdowns on two of three red-zone possessions, which turned into two of three in goal-to-go possessions. And the offense did salt the game away after recovering the onside kick when leading just 27-20, burning the final 2:04 off the clock.

Still a work in progress.

But this defense, why sing hallelujah from high atop AT&T Stadium. Those guys, after a shaky performance the previous game against the Colts, strapped on their chin straps, even Woods saying earlier in the week to no one in particular, "That ain't gonna happen again."

Well it didn't, and had they not backed off with 4:28 left and up two touchdowns to make sure the Bucs didn't score on a huge play, the defense might have held the high-powered Bucs offense to just 13 points. And on top of that, those defensive guys registered two takeaways, three sacks, broke up six passes and hit Winston eight times.

That's more like it.

And get this: Seven of the defensive starters will be completing no more than their third NFL season, with six of those and three more rotation guys no more than their second seasons.

"We've got a lot of young guys who grew up over the course of the year," Garrett said.

And consider one more thing before we celebrate here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day:

The Cowboys did this without two of their veteran, most experienced, stalwart defensive players. Sean Lee was one of the seven inactive players, the Cowboys figuring their defensive co-captain still coming back from that darn hamstring injury would only play a dozen or so snaps. Having an extra special teams player would be more valuable since slot corner Anthony Brown was inactive with back spasms.

That now gives the Cowboys an 8-1 record this year in games without Lee. Last year the Cowboys were 1-5 in games without. Can you say LVE, winner of this year's Bob Lilly Award and deserving of a Pro Bowl invite he did not receive.

And then, on the second play of the game Tyrone Crawford, known as the conscience of this defense, suffered what the doctors are calling "a big-boy stinger," losing him for the rest of the game but supposedly could be ready for the final game of the season if needed, which he won't be now.

Can you say Gregory and Taco Charlton, the two second-year players combining for seven tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery?

So, however you cut it, you have to say, Dallas Cowboys, NFC East champs.

Playoffs, here they come.

Kids these days. They're all alright.

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