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Cowboys can avoid 'what-ifs' with win

IRVING, Texas -- Do you remember 44-6?

It's one of the worst days in Dallas Cowboys history.

With a chance to clinch a playoff spot in the 2008 regular season finale, the Cowboys were blown out at Philadelphia, 44-6.

It was the end of a miserable season for the Cowboys, who came in with high hopes after finishing 13-3 in 2007.

Fast forward to Sunday night, when the Cowboys find themselves in a win-or-go-home game again. If they beat the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, they become the fourth seed and the NFC East division champs.

If they lose, blown leads, clock mismanagement and injuries to key starters will haunt the Cowboys until minicamps start again.

"It's do or die," said linebacker Bradie James, who played in that Eagles game. "The coaches talk about the Xs and Os, and my job is just to go out there [and play]."

The last time the Cowboys were in this situation, things started going the wrong direction right from the opening kickoff. Nick Folk kicked it out of bounds.

By the time the first half ended, the Eagles had scored 24 unanswered points for a 27-3 lead. The Eagles started the second half by becoming the first team in league history to return two fumbles for touchdowns on consecutive drives.

When it was finally over, nose tackle Tank Johnson yelled, "I'm a free agent, baby!" as he strolled into the locker room.

Wide receiver Terrell Owens said changes needed to be made to the offense. Speculation arose that then-coach Wade Phillips would be fired. The end of that 2008 season meant the departure of several high-profile players, including Owens, who was told he wasn't welcome back during a dinner with owner Jerry Jones in South Florida.

Phillips remained and the Cowboys purged the roster of highly-thought-of veterans to turn the franchise around.

In 2009, the Cowboys won the NFC East and their first playoff game since 1996.

It was a remarkable recovery.

The Cowboys are here again.

"I think it's the same thing," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Going into this game, this is an opportunity where you can sort of get a berth, an opportunity where you can catapult yourself sort of where you need to be, showcase what you actually have."

In the first meeting with the Giants on Dec. 11, the Cowboys blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and eventually lost the game 37-34. Kicker Dan Bailey had a 47-yard game-tying field goal attempt blocked by Jason Pierre-Paul in the closing seconds to preserve the Giants victory.

It was the fifth time this season the Cowboys blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost.

There have been several heartbreaking losses, including the Arizona game where coach Jason Garrett mismanaged the clock in the closing seconds, opting for a long field goal try only to see Bailey miss it. And the Cowboys have overcome injuries to several main players -- DeMarco Murray (season-ending fractured ankle), Jay Ratliff (ribs), Sean Lee (wrist), Mike Jenkins (shoulder) and Ware (neck) -- to forge into this win-or-go-home game.

"We haven't been the most consistent team this year," Ware said. "But if you get this game and get to the playoffs, that's like rebirth, a rebirth of the team. I think it'd be great to just keep going."

When it's over, somebody's coaching staff will begin preparations for the NFL draft while another's gets the game film of their potential NFC wild card opponent.

The Cowboys don't want to fail here, or even think about the what-ifs of their season.

When asked about comparisons to 2008, Miles Austin wasn't talking.

James, when pressed further about the 2008 finale, looked toward Sunday, saying, "It's a big one. It's huge."

If the season ends Sunday, the Cowboys could wave goodbye to some veterans once again. But no player wants to think about that right now.

Garrett routinely talks about taking each game one at a time. It's the way he was taught how to play and eventually coach.

He doesn't treat any game differently, saying they're all the same.

Sunday night isn't the same.

"This is a little different," wide receiver Laurent Robinson said. "This is what you talk about at the beginning of the year: Win the NFC East. And we have a chance to do that and you can't worry about what happened in the past. You got to focus all our attention on what happens Sunday night."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.