By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It last happened about 4,500 days ago.
So far, far in the distant past that the Macarena was the rage, the Internet could barely walk and Tiger Woods had yet to win a PGA tournament. So long ago that the Dallas Cowboys were defending Super Bowl champions.
Saturday night in Arlington, it finally happens again. After 13 years of post-season frustrations, follies and failures, the Cowboys will do something an entire generation of fans has never witnessed—win a playoff game.
That's right. You heard it here first. When you wake up Sunday morning, after the Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles in front of 100,000 fans and a national television audience at Cowboys Stadium, for the first time in a long time all will seem right with the world.
"You don't need to remind me how long it's been," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said recently. "Trust me, I've suffered more and more with each passing year. It's time to end this thing and get one. Get a couple."
On December 28, 1996, the Cowboys bitch-slapped the Minnesota Vikings, 40-15, in an NFC Wild Card Game at Texas Stadium. Ho hum, right? Dallas had won Super Bowl XXX 11 months earlier and still had on its roster Hall of Famers such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. But what at the time felt like simply another notch on America's Team's bedpost en route to one more unprecedented climax deteriorated into merely a plotted point on a pathetic timeline.
The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since.
The following week, their three-championships-in-four-years' dynasty crumbled with a stunning loss in Carolina, setting in motion a franchise-worst string of shit that has seen the Cowboys lose their last six playoff games and produce zero fond post-season memories since Jason Garrett was still a quarterback, Barry Switzer was still the coach and Mark Tuinei was still alive.
How long has it been? The Texas Rangers had just recorded the only playoff game victory in their history. The Dallas Mavericks were still counting on the Three J's. Bill Clinton was president, Monica Lewinsky was nobody and Barack Obama served as a rookie state senator in Illinois.
"The Cowboys have had some really good teams through the years, and I've been a part of some of them," Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said. "But for whatever reason it just hasn't happened. We're right there again in good position, so hopefully this time we can get that monkey off our back."
While the Cowboys have been losing marquee January tilts to the Carolina Panthers ('96 and '03), the Arizona Cardinals ('98), Vikings ('99), Seattle Seahawks ('06) and New York Giants ('07), every NFC team–save the wretched Detroit Lions–has won at least two playoff games. Whether it's been the fault of four turnovers, a botched field-goal hold or an ill-timed trip to Cabo, the Cowboys have been less dazzling after Christmas than a January white sale.
It's not all Wade Phillips' fault. But on Saturday night it will be all his fixing.
Add to Dallas' toxic mix of post-season meltdowns their head coach's 0-4 career playoff mark and a victory over Philadelphia seems about as likely as Don Hill presiding over a Trinity River Project ribbon-cutting ceremony next week. But one aspect of football wins consistently in the NFL Playoffs—defense.
And in case you've been too fixated—as I often have—on his lack of authority and accountability as a head coach, Phillips the defensive coordinator has things fixed big time. The Phillips 3-4, spearheaded by six first-round draft choices and accented with four primo free agents, is playing at a level last seen in these parts by the Doomsday Defenses of the 1970s.
Last Sunday the Cowboys summarily smothered the same Eagles, 24-0, to win the NFC East and complete the first back-to-back shutouts in the franchise's 50-year history.
"If the other team doesn't score," quarterback Tony Romo said after the game, "it's pretty tough for us to lose."
The Cowboys' defense has essentially had one bad game this season, the home opener against the Giants in which it allowed 33 points and a last-second, game-losing drive. Lately the defense has held the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints to a combined 37 points and shut out the Washington Redskins and Eagles. For the 16-game season, no team in the NFC allowed fewer points.
"We've played good defense all year, and we've turned it up a notch here lately," Phillips said. "But we can still play better. There's room for improvement."
It was Phillips' defense that allowed Amani Toomer to break four tackles en route to a long touchdown in the '07 playoff loss and that infamously surrendered Baltimore Ravens' touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards to close out Texas Stadium and help Dallas miss the playoffs last year. This year didn't start out much better.
Out of training camp, neither Mike Jenkins nor Orlando Scandrick had clearly won a starting cornerback job. Anthony Spencer's almost sacks made us regret the departure of Greg Ellis. Safety Ken Hamlin fanned on tackles. New defensive end Igor Olshansky was a no-show.
But Phillips is nothing if not patient. He knows it's a four-month season and doesn't own a panic button. Jenkins won the starting gig and is now the closest thing to a shut-down corner the Cowboys have enjoyed since Sanders. Spencer finally got his first sack after mid-season and is suddenly a consistent havoc-wreaker. Keith Brooking has become the emotional leader. And, of course, Pro Bowlers Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware are elite, game-changing players.
The Cowboys won't shut out the Eagles. Philadelphia, remember, dropped a pass at Dallas' 25, overthrew a sure touchdown and carelessly fumbled a snap inside the 20 last week. But at this point we also know they won't score more than 21 points. Only the Giants have done that to this Cowboys defense, and the second occurrence came with the help of a punt return.
Superbly stingy defense is a luxury, a security blanket that allows Romo to take a sack or not force a pass because he knows his team doesn't have to put up 30 points to win a game in January.
"The defense is taking a lot of pressure off," he said.
This core group of Cowboys has been here before. In '07 they were 13-3, sporting 13 Pro Bowlers and boasting home-field advantage throughout the playoffs when the Giants–whom Dallas had swept in the regular season–waltzed into Texas Stadium and won, 21-17, on their way to a Super Bowl.
Offensively these Cowboys aren't better. Not even close. But they will win Saturday and, who knows, maybe even the following Sunday at the Vikings.
"We've got a better, more experienced quarterback now," Jones said. "And we're playing much better defense."
The Cowboys have failed to do it with quarterbacks named Tony Banks and Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright and Ryan Leaf and Clint Stoerner and Chad Hutchinson and Vinny Testaverde and Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe. Coaches Chan Gailey and Dave Campo and Bill Parcells couldn't do it.
It didn't get done in Irving or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Seattle. But—with Romo and Phillips and the Eagles in Arlington—it's finally going to happen again.