- Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- There’s a sign above the door that leads to the parking lot that the Dallas Cowboys see every day: “Champions finish.” One of the room keys to their hotel rooms has a similar message: “Finish. Finish. Finish.”
“I think that’s a theme that we always use with our players and it’s really important we understand the importance of finishing,” coach Jason Garrett said. “And there are so many different things that you finish. You finish plays, you finish drives and you finish games, and certainly emphasize finishing the season. That’s just something that we have to continue to emphasize as a coaching staff. But again, you focus on today and doing what you need to do today to win one ballgame. That’s where our attention’s going to be. That’s where our focus is going to be.”
The Cowboys need to finish the season. At 7-5 they are leading the NFC East and control their own destiny, which always seems like a strange term because if it is destiny, how can it be controlled? Regardless, they know if they continue to win, they will make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Given all of the talked about doom and gloom the Cowboys have suffered late in seasons, they have actually posted winning records in December/January games in three of the past four seasons. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they lost their last two games in 2012 and four of five in 2011, including winner-take-all Week 17 games against the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
The Cowboys swear the recent past means nothing.
“It’s a new year, man,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “We put last year behind us last year, so we’re focusing on now. This is a new team.”
In a way it is, but only five of the projected 22 starters for Monday’s game against the Chicago Bears did not feel the pain of the 2011 loss to the Giants or the ’12 loss to the Redskins. Garrett put the reason on the Cowboys not winning either of those games at not being good enough. He’s right. The Cowboys of the 1990s knew they would win games when it mattered most based upon past performance but also superior talent. Their opponents largely knew it, too.
“We’ve got to focus on us right now,” Garrett said. “This football team has very little to do with the 2012, ’11, ’10 or 1966 team. It has nothing to do with it. So we need to focus on us and what we need to do to get ourselves ready to play one ballgame. That’s really the approach that we take.”
In 2009, the Cowboys lost their first two December games but then beat a previously undefeated New Orleans Saints team to win their final three games and claim the NFC East title. Last year they won their first three games of December to go from 5-6 to 8-6 and in playoff contention only to lose to the Redskins.
Hatcher looks at the loss to the Saints as something of a turning point. They turned embarrassment into motivation. The Cowboys rebounded with two wins in five days by beating the Giants and Oakland Raiders. They did it without their best defensive player in Sean Lee. They did it without their best special-teamer in Dwayne Harris. They did it with an offense that was hit or miss.
“Every game is like a playoff game,” Hatcher said. “We control our own destiny. We can’t get in one of those situations where we look forward to somebody to lose or win. We’ve just got to go out and take care of our next four games and win like we’re supposed to.”