a wild-card berth wrapped up. Same deal last year in Buffalo, needing a victory to get into the playoffs. The Bills were beaten, 29-24, by Pittsburgh.
Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells remembers as tight a situation. His Giants in 1988 had to beat the Jets, of all teams, in the final game of the season to not only clinch the NFC East, but also a playoff berth. They didn't, Parcells remembering giving up the decisive touchdown with 26 seconds remaining to lose, 27-21. Not only did the Giants fail to win the NFC East - Philly did - they also got aced out of a wild-card berth on a tiebreaker with the Los Angeles Rams.
"I think they're used to the . . . I do definitely think they are used to playing in tight quarters now, which I like that about a team," Parcells said. "If you can ever get that characteristic under your belt, that serves you very well."
Over the years, the Cowboys have been in only a couple of these season-ending tight situations. Last time was 1999. They were 7-8 heading into the season finale against the Giants. Win, and they were in as a wild-card team. Lose, and they were out. The Cowboys won.
Then there was 1993 when the NFC East title came down to the season finale against the Giants at Giants Stadium. Win, and the Cowboys were division champs with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Lose, and the Giants win the East, reducing the defending Super Bowl champs to mere wild-card status. The Cowboys won, but not until overtime, 16-13.
In 1990, they were not as fortunate. Standing 7-8, the Cowboys went into the final game needing to beat Atlanta or have the St. Louis Rams beat New Orleans on Monday night to qualify as a wild-card team. The Cowboys, without Troy Aikman, and Babe Laufenberg at quarterback, got smoked, 26-7, causing former offensive lineman Nate Newton to remark after the game, "We had a chance to decide our fate, and blew it."
And even at that, it took a last-second Saints field goal to prevail over the Rams, 20-17, otherwise the Cowboys would have been the final wild-card entry at 7-9.
Then there was 1984, the Cowboys finding themselves in the exact same situation, sitting there at 9-6 and needing a victory over Miami to claim a wild-card berth in the season-concluding Monday night game at the Orange Bowl. The Cowboys recovered to tie the game 21-21, only to let Dan Marino connect with Mark Clayton on a 63-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds remaining when two Cowboys defenders slipped down to lose, 28-21 - the loss ending the Cowboys' streak of nine consecutive playoff appearances.
Oh, we can go back to the season finale in 1979 when there was a three-way tie with Washington and Philadelphia for first in the NFC East. The Cowboys were facing the Skins. The winner would win the East. The loser might not make the playoffs. Certainly you remember Roger Staubach's stirring, final-minutes comeback, the Cowboys winning 35-34, claiming the East and the Redskins going home for Christmas.
And one you might not remember was 1970, when on the final Sunday of the season if the Cowboys, Giants and Detroit won, all 9-4, then the Giants would have won the Eastern Division championship and the Cowboys and Lions would have decided the wild-card spot with a coin flip. That's right, a coin flip was going to be the tiebreaker. Wonder who would have made that call?
Well, the Cowboys won, annihilating Houston, 52-10. Detroit won. But the Rams beat the Giants, handing the Cowboys first place, Detroit the wild card and the Giants a ticket home.
Good stuff, and it won't be any better than this if the Cowboys are handed a little serendipitous break earlier in the day on Sunday, which would plop three scoops of pressure on the outcome of the Cowboys-Rams game that evening.
Now Parcells says he told the team, "It doesn't make any difference" in reference to what happens earlier in the day to the Skins and Panthers. "We got a job to do, and we got to do it."
Yeah, I guess. That's the right thing to say. But if this comes down to win or else, well then, the "job" grows a whole lot bigger.
How fitting, though, for this season, after all that's happened in the last seconds of so many games, to come down to the last