Cowboys get chance at redemption

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Cue up the highlights of the 2008 season finale at Philadelphia. Rewind the tape from the 2011 season finale at the New York Giants.

You will be seeing a lot of them this week.

For the third time in five seasons, the Dallas Cowboys are in a win-and-in playoff situation when they travel to FedEx Field next week to play the Washington Redskins.

The thank you cards need to be sent to 1 Winning Dr., Owings Mills, Md., 21230, c/o Joe Flacco, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and the rest of the Baltimore Ravens for allowing the Cowboys to keep possession of their playoff destiny.

Turns out the Cowboys' 34-31 overtime loss to New Orleans earlier Sunday didn't matter much, thanks to the Ravens' 33-14 dismantling of the Giants.

Of course, these situations have not been kind to the Cowboys.

They lost 44-6 to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in 2008, tying for the fifth-worst loss in franchise history, but it seemed so much worse than that with a wild-card spot on the line. Last January the Cowboys fell behind 21-0 at halftime to the Giants on the way to a 31-14 defeat.

Eleven painful months and 15 games later, the Cowboys find themselves in the same spot Sunday.

With a win, they host a playoff game. With a loss, they affirm all of the long-held notions about the core of this team and perhaps put Jason Garrett's job status in jeopardy.

Yet, even in the wake of Sunday's loss to the Saints, something seems different about these Cowboys, core and all.

"Certainly the resolve, the fight and the determination and will was on display by our football team again," Garrett said. "Those are real positive things."

And that matters if you really want to look at what this team has done to put itself in position to claim the NFC East title.

After their Nov. 4 loss at Atlanta, the Cowboys were 3-5 and seemingly out of it. Then they went out and won five of their next seven games, with the two losses coming by a combined 10 points.

While much of the focus will be on the past defeats to the Eagles and Giants, don't forget the Cowboys won an important season finale against Philadelphia in the 2009 season. They had already clinched a playoff spot, but a win against the Eagles gave them the NFC East title and a home playoff game.

They beat the Eagles in the wild-card round, too.

So they've got that going for them, which is nice.

"I think we've played some good football to get ourselves in this position," quarterback Tony Romo said before the Giants' loss to Baltimore. "Even if we won today we would need that game next week.

"Obviously there's easier places to go play than New York, Philly and Washington for the division every year, but it seems as though we're going to go do that. I welcome that challenge. I think we've improved in some areas since those few years. We'll see if that can hopefully be to our favor."

Romo did not enter those win-and-in games playing as well as he is now. In 2008, he had a back injury and had five December interceptions entering that season finale. In 2011, he suffered a hand injury in Week 16 that knocked him out after one series.

This December Romo has never played better. He has 10 touchdown passes and one interception. He has averaged 332 passing yards in four games.

On Sunday he delivered a 14-point comeback with 3:35 to play to send the game to overtime, hitting Dwayne Harris for a 16-yard touchdown and Miles Austin for a 19-yard strike. The throw to Austin, coming on a fourth-and-10, was as clutch as could be.

Romo finished with 416 yards passing (his third 400-yard passing game of the season) and a season-high four touchdown passes. Lament the missed third-down throw to Dez Bryant in overtime, but without Romo the Cowboys would not have had a shot Sunday.

"He didn't blink late in the game," Garrett said. "We needed some scores, (he) made a lot of big throws down the field to Dez, to Miles over and over and over again."

On Thanksgiving against the Redskins, Romo completed 37-of-62 passes for 441 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the Cowboys turned a 28-3 deficit into a one-score game in the fourth quarter.

"It's going to be great," Romo said of the winner-take-all matchup with Washington. "It's going to be a great environment. It's going to be very hard. It's going to be a tough game for us to win. That team came out and took it to use the last time at our place, so we know we're in for a great challenge and we've got a lot of new guys that are going to be in there that are going to have to get caught up to speed on what they do.

"Offensively, we're going to have to play a really good football game. I think it's going to be a tough place to play and win, but we're going to give it our best, for sure."