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Spagnola: These Interceptions Historically No Joke


FRISCO, Texas – Let the playoffs begin. Essentially, 3:25 p.m. Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, National Football Conference.

The 11-4 Cowboys, most wins since 13 in 2016, needing a victory to stay on the heels of the 12-3 Green Bay Packers for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but to also hold at bay Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams for possibly the No. 2 seed.

The 10-5 Arizona Cardinals, most wins since 13 in 2015, needing a victory to stay on the heels of the 11-4 Rams for the NFC West lead, along with vying for the top wild-card seed.

If you think not about these ramifications, then just ask Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.

"This is going to be a playoff-type game," he maintained, getting back in the actual playoffs for the first time with a team since winning the NFC North title in 2016 in Green Bay. "I mean, we both need this game, and I think we'll see that Sunday afternoon."

Defense has been one of the main reasons the Cowboys are in this situation, already having clinched the NFC East title for the fourth time in eight seasons and assuring no East division team repeats as champs since Philadelphia did so from 2001-04, meaning a different champ over 17 straight seasons.

Takeaways have fueled this defensive resurgence, for sure a fixer-upper from last year's historically poor performance. The Cowboys' 33 lead the NFL with two games to play, a franchise high since 33 in 1999, 22 years ago.

Interceptions have fueled these takeaways at this point, 25 of those total with 11 of them belonging to Trevon Diggs, matching Everson Walls' 40-year-old franchise single-season record set in 1981. And Diggs still has two games to go.

And right here is where we need some historical perspective to understand the magnitude of 25 interceptions in a single season by a Cowboys team, and potentially still counting, with Sunday's game against the Cards and the season finale, uh, Game 17, at Philadelphia to go.

So, let's start here to understand the significance of Diggs at 11 picks. The Cowboys, as a team, haven't had as many as 11 picks in one _season_ since they had 18 in 2014 and 15 in 2013. After that, during three of the previous five years, 2008-12, they had no more than the 11 team interceptions of 2009.

Rather amazing, maybe the drought even dumbfounding.

As Walls said the other day, "They can't even catch me on my strike year sometimes," knowing no Cowboys team leader has even equaled his seven interceptions of 1982 since he himself had nine in 1985. That covers 35 seasons until Diggs this year, six picks in one season having been the most by the likes of Kevin Smith, Larry Brown, Brock Marion and Anthony Henry.

Also, Diggs' franchise record-tying 11, just three short of Dick "Night Train" Lane's NFL record of 14 set in 1952, are more than any NFL player has totaled since Walls' 11 in 1981. In fact, the NFL currently has 14 teams this season with no more than 11 interceptions.

Rather amazing II.

But this dearth of Dallas interceptions doesn't stop here. Remember, with two games to play the Cowboys have those 25 interceptions, Diggs' 11 followed by Anthony Brown (3), Jourdan Lewis (3) and two apiece for Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee, the only guys with more than one.

Well, not since "Thurman's Thieves" of 1985 with 33 interceptions has a Cowboys team totaled more than the current 25, previously 24 being the high in 1999. In fact, only eight times in the previous 61 seasons has a Cowboys team racked up more than the current 25 picks, and four of those occurred between 1981-85, right "Cubby"?

Come on, these are the Dallas Cowboys, winners of now 25 division titles, having played in 17 conference championships (winning eight), losing their lone NFL championship game and winning five of eight Super Bowl appearances. And to think interceptions have been this scarce.

Think about this: In Walls' 1981 rookie season, he and fellow undrafted rookie Michael Downs totaled 18 between the two of them. Eighteen now. Why, 36 teams in Cowboys history couldn't total more than their 18.

And we're talking two undrafted rookies who grew up in Dallas, one going to Grambling State and the other to Rice, and both ending up starting their 1981 rookie seasons, Walls at corner, Downs at safety. And this after the Cowboys brought as many as 25 defensive backs into training camp that year, three of those draft picks

"I knew what the journey was. The journey was crazy, not just unlikely for me," Walls said. "I was watching Mike Downs and myself, we were roommates on the road. Mike was so humble, and I'm trying to give him some love because I just told him the other night, 'Mike what we did, that ain't normal.' Mike came in and got seven picks. I came in and got 11. We're both undrafted.

"You find two other guys who came in and did that for an organization that was at the bottom of the barrel when it came to defensive backs. And I had to tell Mike that the other night because everyone glosses over what he did. I told him, don't let anybody ever gloss over what you and I did. And no one has done it since. And I can't remember anyone doing it before.

"They've got movies about free agents and all that kind of crap. I told him a long time ago, 'Mike, they need to be doing a movie about us.'"

Think about the magnitude of their accomplishment that 1981 season, the Cowboys finishing with a franchise-high 37 interceptions, then 15 in the nine-game season of 1982, followed by consecutive years of 27, 28 and 33. That's 130 INTs over a five-year period, Walls and Downs accounting for 56 of them.

In five seasons. Get outta here.

And remember that's Grambling State and little ol' Rice.

Why, the Cowboys needed the previous 11 seasons (2010-2020) to surpass those 130 interceptions (138) during that five-year period.

"I came from Grambling, which I thought was pretty cool," Walls said. "Mike came from Rice. Ron Springs used to call it 'Minute Rice.' That's what he said. They were good for one minute a game. We were never talked about because we weren't first-rounders. We weren't those guys.

"What we did should have been lauded way before this year."

But they are now, and they can thank Diggs for all this attention his 11 picks have created with still two games to play, bringing up the ghosts of interceptions past. And thank Dan Quinn for his coordination of this defense, creatively mixing and matching players up front to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And thank those guys up there in the front, Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa and Carlos Watkins and Dorance Armstrong and Chauncey Golston, and of late Neville Gallimore and the blitzing Kearse. All of them all.

This will be a serious test for this newest band of Cowboys "thieves" on defense. Without a doubt the Cardinals the best offense the Cowboys have faced since Kansas City, no matter what the Raiders did on Thanksgiving, the penalties that day seriously clouding the issue.

As McCarthy said again of this game, "This is probably as big or the strongest challenge we've had to date. … This will be a juggernaut of a game."

No doubt.

And we'll see if the Cowboys can continue intercepting history.