Commentary

Five keys to winning in the postseason

Updated: January 4, 2010, 5:04 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- The playoffs are here, but can this Dallas Cowboys team do what it takes to win in the postseason? After all, they haven't done that since 1996.

"All of our criticism and our critics, I think they are certainly justified," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Don't get me wrong, after the way we finished the year [2008]. I can give you a lot of excuses, but they didn't want any back then, and they don't want any now. The best thing is that we got in."

With that, here are five things the Cowboys need to do if they expect to win in the postseason this century.

Run the football

To win in the postseason, running the football is vital to success but doesn't guarantee victory. After all, the Cowboys outrushed their two previous playoff opponents -- the New York Giants (2007) and Seattle (2006) -- and lost those games. But in the last three postseasons, NFL teams are 24-9 when they win the running game. And the way the Cowboys are running the ball, that could lead to a playoff push.

During the three-game win streak to close the regular season, the Cowboys outrushed their opponents, 432-175. And the Cowboys aren't doing it with just one guy. Marion Barber and Felix Jones have shared the bulk of the carries, as they have most of the season.

"I think the running game has been the key the last several games," coach Wade Phillips said. "We've traded off with those guys rather than going a series or two with one guy. It works better if we just put them in there. Usually you say a guy has to get into rhythm, but those two guys are in rhythm pretty good when they get in there. So, it's a change of pace that I think is hard on defenses."

Forget about the past

The Cowboys will be reminded all week that they haven't won a playoff game since 1996. Quarterback Tony Romo will be asked about the fumbled snap in Seattle and the choke job versus the New York Giants. The Cowboys have to block out these questions and focus on what's important: beating the Eagles in the NFC wild-card round.

In 2007, the Cowboys went 13-3 and had clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs but were beaten by the Giants. That team had seemed destined for great things, but tight end Jason Witten and inside linebacker Bradie James said the Cowboys were just learning how to win and deal with all that comes with it.

Then last season, expectations were high based on what happened the previous year. But the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs, losing to the Eagles, 44-6, in the regular-season finale with a postseason berth at stake. Distractions were on the field and off it.

"A couple weeks after that, we let go of our best player on the offensive side of the ball [Terrell Owens]," James said. "And so, everybody was looking around saying, 'What's next?' So guys had to step up and rally everybody together to stay consistent, and that's what it's about.

"This has been a team since training camp. Everything has been within our walls, and everybody is just for another. We're all accountable to each other; you can see it. You don't have all that other stuff going on."

Make good coaching decisions

Every decision is looked at closely in the postseason because every decision could end a team's season. Phillips and his coaching staff made some good ones down the stretch, calling fewer plays for slumping wide receiver Roy E. Williams and getting Witten involved in the offense. They also used the running game more. Two rookies -- wide receiver Kevin Ogletree and tight end John Phillips -- got increased snaps and took advantage by making some plays and giving offensive coordinator Jason Garrett confidence to use them.

When Marc Colombo was injured, third-year man Doug Free earned his first starts and played well enough that the Cowboys' front office has taken notice. Also, the Cowboys went with Alan Ball over Pat Watkins at safety when Ken Hamlin was injured.

The big issue revolves around the kicking game. When the team cut Nick Folk, it went with Shaun Suisham. He made a 23-yarder versus Washington in his debut but was 1-of-2 against the Eagles on Sunday -- making a 44-yarder but missing wide left on a 30-yard attempt. How the Cowboys go forward with him is uncertain.

No turnovers

In the last five weeks of the 2008 season, the Cowboys committed 13 turnovers -- 10 attributed to quarterback Tony Romo. Of those turnovers, eight resulted in scores. If the Cowboys expect to win, protecting the ball is important.

In the past five weeks, the Cowboys have turned the ball over just three times -- two on tipped Romo passes. The entire coaching staff has preached to the players about protecting the ball, especially down the stretch. And it seems to have worked as the Cowboys headed into the most important games of the year.

"It's the execution," Romo said. "I think we're not turning the ball over or giving the opposing team the football. I think throughout recent memory, we've been going out to do that, and I think we're consistent in moving the chains and we're not getting lucky breaks.

"We're just doing things the right way, and over time, that's just what consistency is."

Play strong defense

Of the six NFC coaches in the playoffs, only Phillips has a defensive pedigree. And of the six teams, Phillips' group is playing the best ball at the right time. Defense is one of the major reasons the Cowboys enter the postseason with a three-game win streak.

Victories over the Eagles and Saints showed why Phillips might have an advantage over some of his offensive counterparts. In those wins, the Cowboys held them below their season averages for points scored. Pressure, not blitzing, is the key. Not only did the Cowboys sacks Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb four times Sunday, but they also hit him five other times. The Cowboys' speed corners, Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, are able to keep up with faster wideouts of the Saints and Eagles, and the emergence of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer off the edge gives opposing offensive coordinators something more to think about.

"We've had a defense that, with Wade Phillips' influence, has adapted into what he wants and plays the kind of scheme that he wants to play," Jerry Jones said. "It's beginning to play like the way you'd like a Wade Phillips defense to play."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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