A defining moment for Jason Garrett

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett could not have taken over the Dallas Cowboys last year under worse circumstances.

The team was in a dreadful state of mind following a 45-7 loss at Green Bay that led to Wade Phillips' dismissal as head coach with a 1-7 record. Tony Romo was out with a broken collarbone. The defense was in a freefall that had been unseen in team history.

Garrett stepped into the fray with a calming and confident way about him. His message to the players was about "being great today," and how they had to be ready for the New York Giants in the Meadowlands.

The circumstances entering Sunday's winner-take-all season finale at MetLife Stadium are only a little different.

The Cowboys have lost three of their past four games. Romo has a bruised right hand but will play, although several other players are hurt. The defense might not be in the same freefall it was a year ago, but the bungee cord has yet to catch.

But Garrett's approach remains the same now as it was then.

"It's the type of guy he is," Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said. "I think he understands because he played the game. He understands that this whole business is up and down, and some Mondays are going to be a lot better than others. But at the end of the day, when you got a game coming up, that needs to be your central focus.

"I said this time and time again: If you let outside elements start to invade on what you're trying to do and what you're trying to get accomplished, then it will cause a cancer and you will struggle from that. That's something he believes in, that if we commit each day to doing the right type of things that puts us in the best position to be a successful football team. And we are playing for the NFC East division [title] so it has worked up to this point."

But a playoff spot seemed a cinch when December started. Now it's a 50-50 proposition, and the pressure is on Garrett.

With a win, Garrett's message takes hold even stronger going forward whether the Cowboys win a playoff game on wild-card weekend or not. Lose to the New York Football Giants and sideway glances will come not only from those outside the locker room.

Is he really the right guy to be this team's head coach? Should he bring in an offensive coordinator to help with the game management?

This is not to say Garrett's job would be in trouble if the Cowboys lose Sunday. It isn't and it shouldn't be. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said his biggest regret as owner is not giving Chan Gailey a third season. Do you really believe he would give up on Garrett after 24 games?

Jones wanted Garrett to be his head coach one day, which is why he brought him in before hiring Phillips in 2007 and why he made him the NFL's highest paid assistant coach to keep him from taking jobs in Baltimore, Atlanta and St. Louis.

Jones knew there would be growing pains for Garrett, but some of them have been particularly painful.

There is no doubt Garrett has altered the Cowboys' course since taking over for Phillips. He has been more demanding of the players in their preparation and approach. He has preached accountability, although he was a little late to the game for the clock management gaffes at Arizona.

He has brought a structure throughout the building that disappeared when Bill Parcells left. Character matters again when evaluating players either in free agency or the draft.

But winning trumps all. Garrett understands that. He has been around the NFL his entire life.

Garrett's focus, however, is not on any of this big-picture talk. It's about blocking Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and the rest of the Giants' front line. It's about defending Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Brandon Jacobs. It's about winning in the kicking game.

"It's a great opportunity that we have this week," Garrett said. "Not many teams have this opportunity to play for the division title in the last week of the season. We're excited about it. We've put ourselves in a position to do it, just like the Giants have. It's going to be a great game up there. We're going to do everything we can to be ready for this opportunity."

For the players, Sunday's game will be a defining moment.

It will be one for Garrett, too.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.