IRVING, Texas - It's Groundhog Day again in North Texas.
For the third consecutive season, the Dallas Cowboys head into the regular-season finale facing the same scenario - win and claim the NFC East title; lose and go home with a disappointing 8-8 record.
Sunday's matchup with the Eagles will decide the division, a disturbingly familiar situation for the Cowboys, who in 2011 lost to the Giants and last year fell to Washington to miss the playoffs. But all that, the Cowboys insist, is in the past. In fact, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said the feeling in the locker room is more excitement than here-we-go-again.
"I like it," Hatcher said. "This has been my whole life. This is the way I've been raised, the way I was born. Every aspect of my life has been like this. I'm built for this. We can't look back on last year. This is a new year and we've got another great opportunity in front of us. We've just got to take advantage of it. We've got to seize the opportunity."
Pulling that off has become a bit trickier given the uncertain - at best - status of quarterback Tony Romo. Often maligned for his spotty performances in elimination games such as Sunday's, Romo has nonetheless posted spectacular numbers throughout his career, and has passed for 3,828 yards this season with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
But Romo is likely to miss the game with a herniated disk, though coach Jason Garrett and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones have refused to rule him out. Romo didn't practice yesterday and skipped the offensive meetings to undergo treatment, leaving backup Kyle Orton at the helm. Garrett said Romo felt better yesterday, but "he certainly doesn't seem overly comfortable. He is clearly working his way back through it."
Romo's teammates spoke as if they do not expect to see him under center against the Eagles.
"Losing Romo is going to be a big loss, but we have Kyle," cornerback Maurice Claiborne said. "We believe in him. We know he's got a big arm on him and he can read the defenses . . . We believe he can step in and we won't lose too much."
That was also the impression left by the newest Cowboy - and also the oldest Cowboy - 41-year-old Jon Kitna. Kitna, who was Romo's backup before retiring in 2011 after suffering a herniated disk, contacted Garrett when he heard about Romo's injury and was signed Tuesday to be the emergency alternative if Orton goes down.
Now a high school coach and math teacher in Tacoma, Wash., Kitna said the only football work he has done lately is running the scout team at his high school's practices and working with his son, the team's quarterback. But he returned to Texas because he could relate to Romo's injury and knew it would be difficult for the starter to return.
"I had a herniated disk that never went down my leg" like Romo's, Kitna said. "It's not like those things just go away . . . I don't know where his is at. There are varying levels . . . [But] when it gets you, it gets you. There's not much you can do about it."
Which would seem to put the spotlight squarely on Orton, who has played for four teams in nine seasons but hasn't started since 2011.
Orton took practice snaps with the first team for the first time all season yesterday but said he is confident and ready to face both the Eagles defense and the pressure of a do-or-die game. "I fall back on my experience," he said. "I've played a lot of games in this league and had some success . . . I've practiced hard throughout the whole year and I really feel like my game's in a great spot right now."
Meanwhile, according to a report on ESPN.com, linebacker Sean Lee has been ruled out for Sunday's game. Lee has a sprained neck suffered against Chicago on Dec. 9, and according to a source, the injury is more significant than originally thought.