FRISCO, Texas – Now it's time.
Time to find out just who these Cowboys are.
Are they the 6-1 Cowboys with sugar plums dancing in everyone's head and fans making plans to be in SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13?
Or are they the 2-3 Cowboys over the past five weeks making folks go hmmm, hitting the pause button on some of the premature enthusiasm generated by those first seven games of the season when averaging 32 points a game?
Answers are about to come fast and furious with four of the final five games against NFC East teams, starting noon Sunday at FedEx Field against revitalized Washington, who has rebooted after a 2-6 start to win four straight and pull even at 6-6, just two games behind the 8-4 Cowboys.
And this just the first of two games the Cowboys will play against the Washingtons in three weeks, knowing they had better at least gain a split in those matchups if they are to attain their preseason goal of winning the division title for the first time in three seasons and prevent WFT from becoming the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since Philadelphia ran off with four consecutive titles from 2001-04.
When asked about having all these division games bundled into the end of the season, Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb said, "I'm excited. I'm really excited."
And this from safety Jayron Kearse, saying, "We're in a position right now where it's playoff ball."
So, let's not blow head coach Mike McCarthy's statement here on Thursday out of proportion. He wasn't being cocky. He wasn't trying to be boastful. He merely is trying to express confidence in his team that grinded out that 27-17 victory in New Orleans to stop a two-game losing streak and at least salvage a 3-3 record over the past six games.
"I know what people are saying about us," McCarthy began innocently enough. "We're comfortable with who we are and where we are. But I'm excited about what's in front of us.
"We're going to win this game. I'm confident in that. But more important, we want to improve along the way."
Oh, my gosh, you would have thought he was guaranteeing a Super Bowl win, Joe Namath, or an NFC Championship Game win, Jimmy Johnson, just without the "three-inch headlines."
And when quarterback Dak Prescott was asked about what his coach said of winning the game, he couldn't have agreed more, without flinching saying, "S- yeah!"
And for context, we should rightfully back up a bit to Wednesday when McCarthy was asked about having to play four of the last five games against East opponents and two of those in three weeks against Washington.
"We need this stretch, we need the challenges, we need the adversity, we need everything about it," he said before finally breaking out of COVID quarantine the next day. "So, I really like how this is teed up for us.
"Obviously our focus is on this first game, and only this first game. … We're focused on getting nine wins, and that's all that matters. I think the way this lays up, and to get to where we want to go, and to get to where we're going to go, I love the gauntlet of this division stretch. This is going to give us everything we need as a football team to be the best we can be.
"I think the biggest thing is to get this third division win."
Now then, as we started this discussion off, so it is time for the 2021 Cowboys. They had gone through a tough stretch there after clobbering Atlanta. They played three games without Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle Tyron Smith – Denver, Atlanta and Kansas City. They played two games – Chiefs and Raiders – without Amari Cooper (COVID), and at the same time one and a half games without Lamb (concussion). They played four consecutive games without Randy Gregory, Atlanta through New Orleans.
Was a short week after K.C. to meeting Las Vegas on Thanksgiving. Then COVID hit, shutting down The Star, having to go virtual, basically getting in one practice before the Saints game and playing without McCarthy, their two offensive line coaches and having to shut down the weight room with all three strength and conditioning coaches out with COVID.
And get this, because of the heavy schedule of four games in 19 days, with McCarthy trying to keep players legs under them, then COVID and playing half of those four games on the road, Thursday's practice was the first padded practice in a month – previously the Thursday prior to the Atlanta game.
"Which are all great things over the course of a year," McCarthy said before igniting a fire to this longtime rivalry with the Washingtons. "You can't just win one way in this league, and it's not practical to think you're going to win with the same guys lining up with the same 11 every week. It's just not practical.
"This to me is all part of a normal challenge. … We're just really focused on self-improvement and winning. We've got to do whatever we need to do to win the game."
So now, with the exception of the running back situation heading into the game – Ezekiel Elliott dealing with a knee sprain and now Tony Pollard is questionable with a partial plantar fasciitis tear – this team is nearly whole again. McCarthy is back on campus. So is the entire coaching staff. DeMarcus Lawrence is back. Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore seems poised to make his 2021 debut. Gregory is back practicing and should play Sunday. Cooper and Lamb should be full go. Third offensive tackle Terence Steele is back from Reserve/COVID. Cedrick Wilson was back in practice fully by Friday.
And these players will be fresh, mentally and physically, with 10 days between games.
So, no logical reasons for this team not returning to early-season form for this critical stretch run.
And if there was any doubt about this bitter rivalry dying out, well, McCarthy and WFT head coach Ron Rivera took care of that.
Rivera couldn't help but respond to McCarthy's confident statement in answering a question on Thursday, saying, "I think it's interesting; I don't think it's important. I think that's the big mistake because as far as I'm concerned, you do that for a couple of reasons. One is you want to get in our head. And so I've told our players, 'That's interesting, it's not important. What's important is our preparation, getting ready to play on Sunday.'
"Secondly, he's trying to convince his team. So again, I think that's another mistake. Because he's now made it about him and what he said. It's not about his players anymore. So I think that's a big mistake. That's why, to me, you don't do those things."
So then, in this day of, "Well, what do you think about that?" McCarthy comes back on Friday to say, "It's irrelevant what anybody thinks about what I said in here yesterday. I was talking about my team. I always coach my own team. And that's where I'm at with it. We have great confidence in what we're trying to do.
"It was an honest answer to a question from a great group of people."
Cue laughter from the attending media.
You know what? Compared to the shenanigans that began between these two teams 61 years ago, why, even before the Cowboys franchise ever played a game, this is kid stuff.
Please recall Cowboys original owner Clint Murchison Jr. buying the rights to the then Redskins fight song, "Hail To The Redskins," and basically telling then Washington owner George Preston Marshall if you want the rights to your song, you had better vote to approve our NFL franchise in Dallas that he had been balking at.
Or the renegade band known as the Cowboys Chicken Club plotting to sabotage the Washington annual Christmastime halftime show during a late December game at old D.C. Stadium by sneaking into the stadium a bunch of chickens that they were prepared to release onto the field to spook Santa's dog-pulled sleigh.
No lie. But, they were outed in time.
Or the time in 1974 when Washington linebacker Diron Talbert said before the game all the Redskins needed to do to win is knock out Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach because all they had behind the future Hall of Famer was some unknown rookie name Clint Longley. And so they did, sending Staubach to the bench with a concussion and Longley then entering and making his NFL debut by knocking out Washington on Thanksgiving Day.
Or the time the fight broke out in the end zone near the end of a Washington victory when quarterback Joe Theismann tried to kill the clock by running around in the end zone, then taking a safety and spiking the ball triumphantly as Charlie Waters made him pay. Same when a few years later Cowboys defensive backs Michael Downs and Dennis Thurman interrupted the Redskins "Fun Bunch" touchdown celebration, causing another skirmish.
And who would ever forget the 1979 season finale at Texas Stadium when the Cowboys were convinced it was the Redskins sending a funeral wreath to their old practice facility, inferring the Cowboys "were dead" since they had won the first game between the two teams that season and a Washington victory would knock the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
Incensed Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin transported the wreath to Texas Stadium, and after a Staubach to Tony Hill touchdown pass in the final seconds pulled out a come-from-behind Cowboys' 35-34 victory, Martin, in full uniform, carried the wreath over to the visitors' locker room, opened the door and slung the sucker in there while the Redskins were kneeling in a postgame prayer.
So this? What McCarthy said? Come on, kids' stuff.
But hey, 'bout time someone stirred up some old-time animosity, owner Jerry Jones reminding us of six-time Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton saying before meeting the then Redskins one year, "Let's give them some capital punishment."
Well then, sure is high time for the Cowboys to get it on.