So as gloomy as his team's playoff chances looked after Saturday night's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Phillips remained relatively cheery before Sunday's games began. He didn't know whether the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Atlanta Falcons would lose, but he was confident that at least one of them would, opening a direct path for Dallas to make the playoffs.
Sure enough, the Buccaneers lost -- their first defeat at home all season, and to a San Diego Chargers team that was seemingly playing out its schedule. That brought into play another truism Phillips has preached the last two months.
"Ten wins," he said. "It's usually 10 wins that gets you in."
Dallas indeed can clinch an NFC wild-card spot if it picks up victory No. 10 this Sunday in Philadelphia. Lose, and the Cowboys' season is over.
"You can't get any more motivated than that," Phillips said Monday. "It's something that's right there."
Because of the game's high stakes, the league announced Monday that kickoff has been moved to 4:15 p.m. ET.
Phillips gave his players Sunday and Monday off, but he saw most of them Sunday night at the team Christmas party. What might have been a sullen affair turned out pretty well, thanks to the Chargers.
"I talked to a bunch of them last night, and they're all really excited about this," Phillips said. "It's been a long season. It's not a long season any more. It's one game. ... Everything you are fighting for and want is right there, and all you have to do is go get it. That's all you can ask for."
Running back Marion Barber remains a question, too, after he had just two carries against Baltimore because of a dislocated right pinkie toe. The Cowboys haven't missed him much because rookie Tashard Choice has been so productive, but Phillips obviously would like to have his battering-ram starter back in the lineup.
"We just have to see where he is," Phillips said of Barber. "He's been better and better every week, but he still hasn't been 100 percent."
Quarterback Tony Romo went into the Ravens game with a bruised back and took enough hits to keep it from getting much better. But it didn't get much worse, either, and Phillips expects Romo to be fine.
While the Cowboys are thrilled to be so close to the playoffs, it's worth remembering this team wasn't supposed to cut it close.
Dallas was the consensus preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys returned every major contributor from the group that went 13-3 last season, plus some quality additions. They also should have been driven by last year's playoff flop.
Instead, Dallas spiraled to 5-4 and last place in the NFC East going into its bye week. A 4-2 stretch since then -- coinciding with Romo's return from a broken pinkie on his throwing hand -- has salvaged the chance for this Cowboys team to still live up to the hype. As Phillips noted Monday, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last season after going 10-6 and making the playoffs as a wild card.
Phillips also tried stamping out the notion that Dallas has underachieved.
"Let's finish the season and see what happens," he said.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press