By Michael Burke
In Jason Garrett’s first full year as Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys the team made it to the final game of the season with everything riding on it. It was 2011 and the Cowboys were 8-7. The season finale was against the favored New York Giants. The winner of that game was going to win the NFC East and make it to the playoffs, the loser was going home. The game was on New Year’s Day and was flexed to be the season finale for Sunday Night Football. Dallas lost and went home to the golf courses, vowing to be back.
Second verse same as the first
Last year the same thing happened in so many ways. The Cowboys were this time facing the favored Washington Redskins, but they were 8-7 like the year before, and the game was flexed to the Sunday Night Football season finale. The winner would win the NFC East and go on to the playoffs, the loser was going home. Not much changed other than the date of the game (December 30th) instead of the holiday. Once again Dallas lost, went home to the golf courses and vowed to be back.
It’s 2013 and the Cowboys are back. They are 8-7 again. The winner of this game, against the favored Philadelphia Eagles, takes the NFC East and goes on to the playoffs. The loser goes home and to the golf courses. The game has been flexed to be the season finale of Sunday Night Football for the third season in a row. Is it deja vu all over again? Have things changed?
The more things change?
Some things have changed for this game. Maybe they’ll make a difference, maybe they won’t change the outcome at all. From a cursory glance nothing has changed except the calendar date of the games. Dallas is once again coming into the game at 8-7 in a winner take all scenario for a game flexed to be the season finale of Sunday Night Football. They’ve lost both times in the past. Is the only difference the fact that Dallas is finishing the NFC East tour of season finales? No, unlike the last 2 years this game is at home for the Cowboys. Will that make a difference? I don’t know and neither does anyone else, but it certainly bodes well for a better outcome.
The Cowboys are 5-2 at home. In a unique twist of fate the Eagles are 5-2 on the road. Some would argue the Eagles road wins are not an impressive lineup of foes. Their road losses were to the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings playing with a 3rd string running back leading the way behind a quarterback who had been the backup for weeks. Wins on the road were in Washington, New York, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Green Bay minus Aaron Rodgers. Clearly not a murderers row this season (other than the Broncos).
Counter that the Cowboys home wins are equally unimpressive. Their two home losses were to the Broncos and the Green Bay Packers by a combined 4 points. Wins were against Washington, New York, St. Louis, Minnesota, and Oakland. Unlike the Vikings, the Cowboys will not go with their 3rd string RB, but like the Vikings they are going to be with a backup QB at the helm. In a remarkable display of guts and guile Tony Romo led the Cowboys to a come from behind victory last week to set up this duel for the Division.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys and their fans, Romo may be lost to the injury suffered in that game (Editor’s note – Romo will not play). A friend at work who is a Redskins fan told me, “I guess we did end your season after all.” I said, “Yeah, we sort of ended yours too, only it was in week 6 after your bye.”
A sweep in the NFC East?
Until Washington’s score with under 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter last week, Dallas had not trailed a single Division opponent in any game this season. Had Dallas taken care of business against the Packers 2 weeks ago they wouldn’t have even trailed in the Division race at all. This game would not be for the Division, Dallas would already have it wrapped up by virtue of a better NFC East record than the Eagles. And more than just the playoffs are at stake for the Cowboys. A win means the Cowboys will accomplish something only done twice in the history of the NFC East – They will have swept the Division. Since 1970 this has only been done twice. The first time was in 1998 by the Cowboys, the second was in 2004 by the Eagles.
If you know the history of the NFC East at all you undoubtedly know that its the most dominant Division in the NFL as far as Super Bowl appearances and wins. The Cowboys lead the way with eight trips and five wins. The Giants have been to five and have four wins. The Redskins have been to five and won three. The Eagles have been to two Super Bowls, but lost both. That means 20 of the 47 Super Bowl NFC representatives have been by a team from the NFC East, and 12 of the winners are from that Division as well.
Taking a similar path
Why bring that up? Because none of those 12 Super Bowl winners swept the NFC East, and of the 20 trips to the big game only one of them featured a team who that did, the 2004 Eagles. When Dallas swept the NFC East in 1998 there were 5 teams in the Division and the Cowboys won all 8 games. In 2004 the Arizona Cardinals were no longer in the Division, so the Eagles swept 6 games. Dallas can match that feat, can they match the trip to the Super Bowl?
That’s a high mountain to climb and the rope we’re clinging to isn’t all that strong. Without mincing words, I think the effort Dallas has made all year to play through injuries to critical players has been nothing short of miraculous. The hardest hits have been to the defensive side of the ball. It’s well documented that 19 different players have contributed for the Cowboys on the defensive line. The next closest team to that had 10 different players. That’s almost double. That doesn’t even take into account the loss of Sean Lee, the leader of the defense in Dallas.
Calling on all Cowboys fans!
What is going to be different about the outcome this time around? I don’t know and won’t pretend to. I do believe Dallas has a puncher’s chance. They’ll need a solid effort from Kyle Orton, they’ll need Demarco Murray to continue his recent brilliance running the football. They’ll need their Defense to replay some of the magic they had the last time these two teams met, holding the Eagles to their worst offensive output of the season (3 points). They’ll need some takeaways and need to protect the ball themselves.
I’ll tell you one thing that would really help increase our chances. If the crowd at Cowboys Stadium this week can somehow match the intensity of the crowds who cheer on the Seattle Seahawks. That’s the epitome of what a home stadium should sound like for a visiting team. In Seattle the jersey number 12 is retired in tribute to the 12th man in Seattle – The Crowd. If Dallas can get that kind of excitement this week it could go a long way towards thwarting the Eagles and their fans who have a lot of confidence coming into this game. Is that too much to ask Cowboys fans? Let’s cheer on our cardiac Cowboys and help them write one of the most improbable scripts of all. Let’s get loud and proud, “How ’bout them Cowboys?”