FRISCO, Texas — Some players wore their NFC East champion T-shirts and hats. Others kept them in clear, plastic bags.
In his postgame speech after the Dallas Cowboys wrapped up the division title with a Sunday’s home win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Jason Garrett told his players to be proud of what they accomplished but to give the new gear to somebody they love as a Christmas present.
He made a similar speech a couple of years ago.
The point Garrett was trying to emphasize was that winning the NFC East was the first goal, not the only goal.
“This is just the start,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “This is just the beginning. This is something that we set out and wanted to do way back in the offseason. This just gives us a chance to go and get the greater goal.”
The Cowboys won’t be considered favorites to win or even get to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. They might not even be favored to beat the Seahawks in the wild-card round if those teams meet in two weeks, considering Seattle won the regular-season meeting in Week 3.
Entering Week 17, the Cowboys have a 97 percent chance to play Seattle in the wild-card round, according to the ESPN Football Power Index.
But getting into the tournament gives the Cowboys a chance make a run few thought possible even in November.
“I certainly think we’re playing the kind of really good football that you can win games in postseason,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “Any of the teams can win the game. We right here had the Giants come right up the backside and win the championship [in 2007]. I think our team is a postseason team.”
Those Giants finished 10-6 and did not enter the playoffs as hot as these Cowboys, who have won six of their past seven games, but the Giants beat the top-seeded Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs and then won the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.
New York pulled off the mother of all upsets by beating the New England Patriots in XLII.
The Giants did so with a relentless defense and an efficient offense.
Does that sound familiar?
The Cowboys are the only team not to allow 30 points in a game all season. They affect the quarterback. They have made teams one-dimensional most of the time. Against the Buccaneers, the defense added a touchdown with Jaylon Smith‘s 69-yard fumble recovery for a score.
They get by on an old football truism: Run the ball and play defense.
“Well, I believe in this defense,” coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “And I believe in hitting. And I believe in hustle.”
When the Cowboys are operating well offensively, they are efficient. But their biggest issue is a lack of production in the red zone. They have scored 21 touchdowns on 46 red zone drives this season. They converted on two of three opportunities against the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay had the league’s worst inside-the-20 defense.
“I think it’s obvious we need to do better, especially when we get down close to the end zone,” Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. “That’s kind of been a problem for us all year. I know we’re going to continue to work on it and do better in the playoffs, hopefully. That’s obviously been a big thing for us, so we need to fix that going forward.”
Ezekiel Elliott can help cover up a lot of issues.
“We’ve got, I think, the best player in football in 21,” Martin said of Elliott.
Elliott is likely to win his second rushing title in three seasons, even if he does not play in Week 17 at the Giants. He has 1,434 yards on 304 carries. Todd Gurley, who didn’t play Sunday and is nursing inflammation in his left knee, has 1,251 yards in second place in the category.
“I think we can make as much noise as we want to,” Elliott said. “We have a very tough defense, who gives the offense hell every week. And we’re a tough, gritty offense that runs the ball. And we have receivers that can make plays downfield. So, I think the sky’s the limit for us. We’ll do as well as we allow ourselves to do in the playoffs.”