LANDOVER, Md. - The Dallas Cowboys did not know and did not care how the Eagles treated their penultimate game of the regular season Sunday night against the Chicago Bears. They did not have to because they hopped on their charter flight in the early evening knowing that their season finale against the Eagles in Arlington, Texas, was the only thing that mattered to them.
The NFL team and the NFL quarterback that has so often turned December into the month they'd rather not remember did what was necessary to at least make their last game of 2013 a relevant one. All they had to do was find a team more inept than their own.
That team was the Washington Redskins, who have mangled every month of this season after winning the NFC East a year ago. With star quarterback Robert Griffin III benched and head coach Mike Shanahan likely on his way out, the Redskins were perhaps the one team the reeling Cowboys could count on as comfort food.
And still they made things as uncomfortable as they possibly could for themselves. Little was impressive about the way the Cowboys (8-7) played against one of the worst teams in the league, but they happily accepted the result, a 24-23 come-from-behind victory that set up a showdown with the Eagles for the NFC East title Sunday at owner Jerry Jones' pleasure palace, now known as AT&T Stadium.
For all their faults - you need more than two hands to count them all - the Cowboys have a flair for the dramatic. One week after blowing a 26-3 lead at home to Green Bay, the Cowboys managed to turn a second and goal from the 1-yard line just after the two-minute warning into a fourth and goal from the 10 with the weight of their season hanging in the balance.
Quarterback Tony Romo, playing with a sore back and a sore right leg, saved his team by scrambling to his right before finding running back DeMarco Murray for a 10-yard touchdown pass that tied the game. Dan Bailey's extra point put Dallas ahead by a point and completed a rally from a 23-14 deficit.
"It felt like an elimination game for us," Romo said after throwing two touchdowns and an interception. "Obviously we needed to win this game. It was a playoff game, and the guys kept having belief, and we came out on top."
That is true. It is also true that if the Eagles are not good enough to beat a team as flawed as the Cowboys they do not deserve to win the division. It doesn't matter if the game is being played in Texas, Philadelphia, or Antarctica. If the Cowboys were anything more than mediocre, they would have thumped the three-win Redskins.
Instead, the Cowboys turned a 14-6 halftime lead into a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter by committing turnovers on their first two possessions of the second half. A series of stupid penalties after that raised the degree of difficulty for the eventual comeback.
The sense of relief inside the visitors' locker room was palpable, but there was also a sense that the Cowboys are a little overly impressed with their living-on-the-edge way of doing things.
"I think we're the only team that keeps getting in the position to win the NFC East every year," Romo said. "That's a credit, but it's also a negative that we didn't do it the last couple of years."
It's also true that it has been a few years since the NFC East was considered a playground for the league's elite.
This will be the fifth time in seven seasons that the Cowboys have played a season finale with huge implications. The Eagles pounded them, 44-6, to get the NFC's final wild-card spot in 2008, but Romo and the Cowboys bounced back the next year and won the final game in a rout at home against the Eagles to claim the division title and home-field advantage in a playoff game the following week. The Cowboys also won the playoff game in lopsided fashion, and that remains the only playoff victory of Romo's thoroughly examined career.
The last two seasons, the Cowboys have lost the final game to the New York Giants and Redskins, allowing their opponent to claim the NFC East each time.
Now, it's a showdown with the Eagles again, and they are a team that Romo and the Cowboys have dominated in recent years. Since that 44-6 loss at the Linc to conclude the 2008 season, Romo is 6-1 with 12 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 97.6 passer rating vs. the Birds. That excludes the game he left in 2011 after throwing just two passes.
The Cowboys also won earlier this year at Lincoln Financial Field, knocking Nick Foles cold in the process. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expects to see something different in his team's rematch with the Eagles.
"We won't see the same Nick Foles at all," Jones said. "It's ridiculous to think we would. If Nick had played a good game against us that score would have probably been different.
"We're down to the Philadelphia game for us. We get to play Philadelphia at home, and we get to play for the [NFC] East and a playoff game in our stadium. You can't have more incentive for our players to be ready and our coaches to be ready."
The Cowboys have found all sorts of ways to throw away this season, and yet they have another chance to save it. If the Eagles aren't good enough to finally lay Dallas to rest, then they really aren't very good at all.
Dallas QB Tony Romo is known for disappearing in December and having just one playoff victory. His numbers against the Eagles in December and January since 2010, however, are actually quite impressive. Here's a look at how he has done vs. the Eagles late in the season in his career:
Date Site Result Comp.-Att. Yds. TD Int. Rating
Dec. 25, 2006 at Cowboys L, 23-7 14-29 142 1 2 45.5
Dec. 16, 2007 at Cowboys L, 10-6 13-36 214 0 3 22.2
Dec. 28, 2008 at Eagles L, 44-6 21-39 183 0 1 55.8
Jan. 3, 2010 at Cowboys W, 24-0 24-34 311 2 1 106.4
Jan. 9, 2010* at Cowboys W, 34-14 23-35 244 2 0 104.9
Dec. 24, 2011** at Cowboys L, 20-7 0-2 0 0 0 39.6
Dec. 2, 2012 at Cowboys W, 38-33 22-27 303 3 0 150.5
TOTALS 117-202 1,397 10 7 81.2
*Divisional-round playoff; **Romo only played one series - Bob BrookoverEndText