Sunday, December 25, 2011 Updated: December 26, 9:50 AM ET
Will ones that got away haunt Cowboys?
By Todd Archer ESPNDallas.com
IRVING, Texas -- It was easy to figure out what Coach Jason Garrett's message was to the Dallas Cowboys after Saturday's 20-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Just about every player said the same thing.
"We've got a chance to do what we set out to do at the beginning of the season," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "Regardless of how you look at it at this point, this is where you want to be."
Whatever disappointment you felt about the loss to the Eagles, just remember that Philadelphia will not be playing for a playoff spot in Week 17 and the Cowboys will. If that doesn't make you feel better, go play with your favorite Christmas present.
A Cowboys win against the New York Giants will clinch the NFC East for the third time in five seasons. A win will guarantee them at least one playoff game at Cowboys Stadium.
Tony Romo's fumble helped the Jets rally and send the Cowboys to a stunning loss in Week 1.
And a win will make you forget some of the losses that have put the Cowboys in this precarious position.
In reality, the Cowboys should not be in this spot with the games they have given away this year, while realizing they won some games they likely should have lost.
They should be breathing easy in their season finale against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Instead, they will have to hold their breath for 60 more minutes without turning blue.
The Cowboys have turned Garrett's "Be Great Today" motto into a T-shirt you can buy in the team's pro shop or online, but it's really turned out to be true.
Garrett treated Game 1 like he did every other game, saying they're all equally important. That might be a stretch this week because of what is on the line, but if the Cowboys miss out on the postseason for the second straight season they can point to mind-blowing losses in September, October and December as the reasons why.
"I just think you've got to stay away from that," said tight end Jason Witten of the woulda, coulda, shoulda mindset. "You're in this situation. If you think back to Week 2 or really Week 1, the Jets game, seems like 10 years ago. You can't get caught up in that."
Witten mentioned the Jets game. Let's begin in New York when the season began with a 27-24 loss to the Jets.
The Cowboys had a 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the Jets cut it to 24-17, the Cowboys were ready to answer with at least a field goal when a scrambling Tony Romo fumbled at the New York 3. A blocked punt return tied the game and a Romo interception by Darelle Revis set up Nick Folk's game-winning field goal with 27 seconds to play.
The most perplexing loss came Oct. 30 at Cowboys Stadium to Detroit. The Cowboys had a 27-3 lead in the third quarter but Romo was intercepted three times, with two returned for touchdowns. The last interception set up the Lions' game-winning touchdown with 1:39 to play.
The Cowboys had New England in the ropes at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 16, but conservative play calling with a 16-13 lead allowed Tom Brady to direct a Brady-like game-winning drive that ended with a TD pass with 22 seconds left.
Winning at New England would have been gravy, but losing at Arizona in overtime Dec. 4 and the following week at home against the Giants was inexplicable.
Garrett's clock management at the end of regulation at Arizona led to a 49-yard field goal attempt by Dallas rookie Dan Bailey even though the Cowboys had two timeouts remaining. Bailey's first try was good, except Garrett called a timeout because he felt the play clock was running down.
Bailey's second try was short. The Cardinals never gave the ball back in overtime, winning on a 52-yard screen pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling.
The next week against the Giants, the Cowboys had a 12-point lead with 5:41 to play but kissed it away with porous defense. Brandon Jacobs bulled his way in for a go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds to go. Bailey was in position to tie with a 47-yard field goal try, but Giants coach Tom Coughlin called timeout before his first attempt, which went through, and Jason Pierre-Paul blocked the second attempt.
Add up the desultory defeats and the Cowboys find themselves in this win-or-out situation next Sunday.
If they lose to the Giants, pick whichever giveaway earlier in the season as the reason the Cowboys would be out of the playoffs.
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.