IRVING, Texas -- Different year. Same song.
At 8-7, with a win, the Cowboys will win the NFC East for the first time since 2009. A loss and they will finish 8-8 for the third straight season.
Throughout the locker room during the week players have said this is a new team and a new year. It’s the same mantra coaches all across the league push. Jason Garrett has said it too. The players swear the losses to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins mean nothing.
“You definitely learn something from the last two opportunities to close out, but there’s nothing like the next opportunity in your life and it’s here,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “It’s win or go home. We’ve just got to go out there and take care of business.”
Nine players remain from the embarrassing 44-6 loss at Philadelphia in 2008 in which a win would have put the Cowboys in the playoffs. Twenty have dealt with the disappointment from the season-ending losses to the Giants and Redskins. Thirty were part of last year’s loss to the Redskins.
“You’d be lying to think those last two years don’t sit in the back of your mind and in the middle of your gut,” said tight end Jason Witten. “Those are gut wrenching the way those ended, but it’s a new year, a new football team, a different opponent. I know Chip Kelly probably doesn’t care much about those last two years and his football team doesn’t either. They’re on a mission as well. So you have to be able to kind of take the emotion outside of that and say, ‘What’s going to allow us to play our best football?’ and focus on execution.”
The burden will be more difficult if Tony Romo does not play, but Garrett has stressed simplicity this week. He does not need Witten, Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick or any other player to do more.
“They need to do their job really well,” Garrett said. “It’s an easy thing to do: to break the huddle and say, ‘I’m going to do everybody’s job.’ Just do your job and do it really well.”
Unlike the losses to the Giants and Redskins, Sunday’s game is at AT&T Stadium. In 2009, the Cowboys and Eagles met in the season finale with the NFC East on the line, however, both teams had a playoff spot sewn up. The winner was able to stay at home for the wild-card meeting.
The Cowboys won 24-0 and won the following week 34-14.
“I’m just proud of the position we’re in,” Murray said. “Just the opportunity to go to the playoffs and have this last game in our building, hopefully we can turn things around from the past two years for us.”
This process, as Garrett likes to call it, started in April. They slogged through a long training camp in Oxnard, Calif. They made it through five preseason games. They have dealt with some crushing losses –- Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers come to mind -- and had emotional wins --sweeping the New York Giants, last-minute drive vs. the Minnesota Vikings, last week’s win against the Redskins -- just not enough of them.
So the Cowboys sit here at 8-7 with their season on the line in Week 17. Again.
“This is why we do it,” Garrett said. “We started a long time ago for the opportunity to play a game like this. A lot of highs and lows over the course of the season, and you have to be mentally strong enough to fight through it to get to this point. Our team has done that and we are excited about the opportunity.”