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Monday, December 17, 2012
Cowboys' focus stays on task at hand

By Todd Archer
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- The scenarios seem endless with two games to play.

Jason Garrett, Anthony Spencer
Anthony Spencer, right, said the Cowboys haven't strayed from Jason Garrett's message all season, and the team is beginning to see results.
No doubt you have sat at your desk and said, "OK, how can the Cowboys make the playoffs?"

The easiest answer is to win the final two games against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins to claim the NFC East title and bring the second playoff game to Cowboys Stadium since its opening.

A 9-7 record could still qualify for the Cowboys for the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but there are so many different machinations that not even a Princeton grad would want to take the time to examine all of them.

Just know that the Cowboys would need help (i.e., losses) from the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and perhaps New York Giants to make it as a wild-card team. And it would mean only a No. 6 seed because of their September loss at Seattle.

It is possible the tiebreakers could come down to common foes, strength of victory and/or strength of schedule based on beating the Saints or Redskins.

And that's before the ridiculousness of adding up points scored and allowed, net touchdowns or even a coin flip.

There is not enough time in the day to figure out all of the machinations -- the last tiebreaker among playoff scenarios is a coin flip -- which is why it is best to go with Al Davis' credo: Just win, baby.

The Cowboys might be tied for first place in the NFC East with two games to go, but Garrett is thinking of New Orleans and only New Orleans.

"Our mindset around here is that we always control our own destiny," Garrett said. "When you do your best work in life is when you focus at the task at hand and you're not distracted by the things around you.

"That's what we've tried to convey to our players: Come to work every day and let's be our best on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, prepare to be our best on Sunday and then go play our best. If you do that, you give yourself the best chance to be successful. We've put ourselves in position right now that everything we want is right in front of us, but we have to focus on the task and that's the New Orleans Saints."

With an 8-6 record, the Cowboys are contenders. Reread that sentence and promise you will not do a search on postings here on ESPNDallas.com about this team's playoff chances after the Thanksgiving Day loss to Washington, or even the Nov. 4 defeat at Atlanta.

While playoff talk might be a surprise to some (hand raised), it isn't to Anthony Spencer.

"I believed we were contenders two weeks ago," Spencer said after Sunday's 27-24 overtime victory against Pittsburgh.

There has to be some magical change, right? Maybe Garrett has called better plays? Not really, but there are some wrinkles on the offense that have led to more success. Maybe defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has invented some new defense? Definitely no, especially with so many starters out because of injury.

"We haven't really changed anything of what we've been doing all season," Spencer said. "We've been working the same way, staying consistent and doing the things we know to win games. It's just paying off."

Novel concept, huh?

The Cowboys are simply playing better now than they did earlier in the season.

Tony Romo is not turning the ball over and is making the big plays at the big moments. DeMarco Murray is not on the sideline and is breaking tackles. Dez Bryant is not running poor routes and is catching touchdown passes.

On a defense that has been socked with injuries, the replacements are doing their jobs; nothing superhuman, just the ordinary. The leaders, such as Spencer, DeMarcus Ware and Brandon Carr, are making plays when it matters most with timely turnovers and key stops.

That all of this is coming together at this time of the season to this team with their recent history of late-season fades seems, well, un-Cowboy-like.

In 2008, the Cowboys lost three of their last four games, including a playoff-or-bust drubbing at Philadelphia to finish 9-7. Last year, they lost four of their last five games, including a de facto NFC East championship game at the Giants, to finish 8-8.

"We've had the ability to grab it so many times and been on the other side where you are so close and you don't do it," Jason Witten said.

When Witten stepped off the team plane in California in July, he provided the team's message for the season when he said, "It can't be the same old story."

With two games left, the Cowboys can write a new story.

Better to win than to worry about any playoff tiebreakers.