Cowboys can't enjoy season of accomplishments with bigger goals ahead

PHILADELPHIA -- After ducking up the Lincoln Financial Field tunnel late Saturday night, Dak Prescott was done celebrating with the fans after the Dallas Cowboys' 51-26 beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles.

As the quarterback made his way to the visitors locker room with a couple of teammates and staffers around him, Prescott said something to no one and everyone all at the same time.

“The real s--- starts,” he said.

The real stuff is the playoffs, which for the Cowboys will begin Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at AT&amp;T Stadium (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS). It is Prescott’s third postseason as the Cowboys’ starter and first since 2018. At 12-5, the Cowboys moved up to the No. 3 seed with losses by the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals, renewing one of the most storied playoff rivalries in NFL history with San Francisco.

In the locker room on Saturday, there were no loud or lingering celebrations. Players seemed happy with the result but far from satisfied. Coach Mike McCarthy’s message to the team was clear.

“When this plane touches down in Dallas, that’s the starting line. This is what we’ve been talking about since April and we’ve had goals all along that we’ve hit,” McCarthy said. “Twelve wins in a season is a good year, but more importantly it’s difficult to put yourself in a good position any year. We just want to make sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Playing on Saturday night means we get back at 4:00 a.m., so we just really need to start the process of rest and recovery and be ready to go.”

The Cowboys have not won a Super Bowl or advanced to an NFC Championship Game since 1995. They have won all three of the wild-card round playoff games they have played at AT&T Stadium (2009, 2014, 2018), but they know this season is about more than one playoff game.

“Line them up,” Prescott said. “We’re ready to go, and we’re going to look forward to making a good run.”

Before they reached the starting line, the Cowboys -- a year after going 6-10 with Prescott limited to five starts because of a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle -- put together a season filled with accomplishments:

  • For the first time since 1998, the Cowboys finished undefeated against the NFC East and are the first team to go unbeaten in the division since the 2004 Eagles.

  • The Cowboys set a franchise mark for points in a season (530). They set an NFL record with 22 different players scoring a touchdown. A season after allowing a franchise-record 473 points, they gave up 358 points.

  • Prescott set the team record for touchdown passes in a season with 37 thanks to the first five-touchdown game of his career against the Eagles in Week 18.

  • It helped to have a 17-game regular season, but the Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Prescott), 1,000-yard rusher (Ezekiel Elliott), 1,000-yard receiver (CeeDee Lamb) and defenders with 10-plus sacks (linebacker Micah Parsons) and 10-plus interceptions (cornerback Trevon Diggs).

  • They finished the season with 34 takeaways, their most in a season since 1987.

“But none of that matters anymore. You get into this tournament and it’s one game at a time and it’s must-win,” Prescott said. “So that’s the focus and it’s about getting healthy, getting this team healthy and doing what we can to make sure we put ourselves in a great position come next weekend.”

Why did a win Saturday matter? The Cowboys did not want to go into the playoffs with a two-game losing streak. They also moved up to the No. 3 seed, which means a potential second-round trip to Tampa Bay. They have lost four straight playoff games when entering the postseason with a loss in the regular-season finale.

They also wanted to get some rhythm offensively. They scored on eight of nine possessions before taking a knee on their final possession of the game. They have scored touchdowns on 13 straight red zone possessions. Elliott had his best rushing day since October, finishing with 87 yards.

“We felt where we were as a team in terms of first year in the playoffs that it was important for us to continue to play,” McCarthy said. “Statistically, rhythm, pace of operation, everything we were looking to accomplish tonight, we were able to get that done.”

There are still some warts that could hurt the Cowboys in the postseason, but every team seems to have issues.

Minus a number of starters, the Eagles managed to run the ball effectively, albeit against a defense that did not have Parsons. The Eagles had four passes of more than 20 yards, albeit against a defense that did not have Diggs or cornerback Anthony Brown. Kicker Greg Zuerlein missed his sixth extra point of the season to go along with six missed field goal tries.

McCarthy said the four starters on the reserve/COVID list -- Parsons, Brown, offensive tackle Tyron Smith and safety Jayron Kearse -- should be able to return to practice this week. COVID-19 issues aside, the Cowboys are healthy going into the playoffs.

“Everyone is hungry. Everyone is playing a one-game season every week,” Elliott said. “You have to go out there and get the job done. You don’t want to go home.”

To quote Prescott once more: “The real s--- starts.”