December presents Boys an opportunity

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are adopting a one-game-at-a-time philosophy. It's the only way the team can deal with its late-season struggles from the past.

But as the Cowboys face tough challenges against the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints in the next two weeks, they are nevertheless presented with a can't-miss opportunity to gain ground in their division with four games remaining.

Dallas hosts the Chargers, leaders of the AFC West, on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. Up north in East Rutherford, N.J., the Philadelphia Eagles, tied for first with the Cowboys in the NFC East, visit another division contender, the New York Giants.

A victory over a team that hasn't lost in December since 2005 would not only silence some of the criticism the Cowboys (8-4) have had to endure this week; it would also give them either a one-game lead over the Eagles (8-4) or a two-game edge over the Giants (7-5).

"I think the mindset is so tough already," tight end Jason Witten said. "We have to take care of ourselves, but I think people see the big picture with New York and Philly. Seeing [the schedule] puts more of an emphasis on it. It all falls into place if we take care of our situation."

Losses to the Giants and the Green Bay Packers could hurt the Cowboys once the season ends. Dallas would lose a tiebreaker to New York, the defending division champ, because the Giants swept the season series. The Cowboys would also lose a tiebreaker to the Packers, having lost to them Nov. 15.

Dallas, however, owns a tiebreaker over the Atlanta Falcons after beating them earlier this year. But with the NFC field crowded with contenders, the Cowboys can't take any chances.

"I think 10 wins gets you in," wide receiver Roy Williams said. "It doesn't matter how you get in."

That's true, but December success is critical to the Cowboys' hopes this year.

Coach Wade Phillips talked to his team last week about ignoring the December issues. Phillips says this is a different team, one that shouldn't concern itself with past struggles. The Cowboys haven't compiled a winning December-January since 1996, although Phillips has called the numbers associated with the slump "baseball stats." After last week's loss to the Giants, he went so far as to say those numbers were a media creation.

Under the past two coaches, Bill Parcells and Phillips, the Cowboys are 11-17 in the late-season period, not counting the postseason. Go deeper and you'll find that since 1998, the Cowboys are 19-22 in December and January.

Some of the main voices on the team besides Phillips -- such as owner/general manager Jerry Jones and quarterback Tony Romo -- have been hesitant to discuss the trend, saying that struggling in December is not as important as winning overall.

Phillips, who called his team a "bunch of winners" this week, became testy with a reporter who questioned that assertion. Linebacker Keith Brooking and several players defended Phillips' ability to lead the team.

Regardless, the Cowboys are faced with the prospect of getting knocked out of first place for the first time since early November. Winning on Sunday against the Chargers almost becomes a must-win situation.

"You hope the worst for some of the NFC East teams," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Just in general, we've got to play them again and if we get the job done, you can't be worried about anybody else."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. Drop him a line on his weekly mailbag.