Outcome can determine season's tone
IRVING, Texas -- The last time the Dallas Cowboys were in first place was following Week 3 of the 2008 season. A 27-16 road victory in Green Bay kept the Cowboys tied with the New York Giants at 3-0 in the NFC East.
But over the next four weeks, the Cowboys lost three games and fell behind the Giants in the division. Still, the Cowboys had a chance to reach the postseason by beating the Philadelphia Eagles on the road.
Philadelphia pummeled Dallas 44-6 in the regular-season finale, ending any postseason dreams for the Cowboys.
Today, the Cowboys are in a first-place tie with the Eagles in the NFC East, and the two hook up on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Revenge seems to be on the minds of the Cowboys, but they are not saying anything, at least publicly.
"I think everybody realizes what's at stake in this game and how critical this one really is," wide receiver Patrick Crayton said. "I'm not going to call it a must-win [game]. It's not going to break the season, but I think it's a 'have to win.'"
Dallas has turned its season around after an Oct. 4 loss at Denver. The Cowboys have forged three consecutive victories, starting in cold and windy Arrowhead Stadium on Oct. 11 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys won an overtime game against a then-winless team 26-20, an outcome that has somehow inspired the troops.
Jason Witten, the veteran tight end, said that was a must-win situation. Throughout that game, Witten was on the sidelines and on the field barking at his teammates to play better. At one point, he said a few things to Chiefs coach Todd Haley.
In Kansas City, the Cowboys were trying to step up and avoid a last-minute situation like the one in Denver, Witten said. "That was a huge win for us. Now to think to go into the bye 2-3, I couldn't imagine what that could have felt like for us."
The Cowboys' three-game win streak is fueled by quarterback Tony Romo, who hasn't thrown an interception during this stretch. Wide receiver Miles Austin, who took Crayton's starting spot, has scored five touchdowns the past three weeks.
DeMarcus Ware, the talented outside linebacker, had no sacks the first four weeks of the season but has five during this winning streak.
The Cowboys are playing their best football right now, and a big game looms with the Eagles, who are coming off a 40-17 win over the Giants on Sunday.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said his team is ready for a game like this, based on how they've played the past three weeks.
For the first quarter of the season, quality wins were lacking from the Cowboys' résumé. But a 37-21 win over Atlanta on Oct. 25 earned Dallas some believers.
And now, here come the Eagles, who like the Cowboys feel good about their place in the standings. This game is pivotal because the Cowboys play their next two games on the road, then host the last-place Washington Redskins on Nov. 22 before the Thanksgiving game against the Oakland Raiders.
This stretch of games can determine where the Cowboys stand come December. But first, they must handle the Eagles.
"I think it's important certainly," Phillips said. "This is this year's team. I think everybody remembers last year. Not all of our players were on this team last year and we split with them last year, but the last game really hurt us. And the guys that were there certainly remember it."
Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.