ARLINGTON, Texas -- It had to come down to a final game. Had to. Just like it's come down to the final drive over and over again. The white-knuckled way the Dallas Cowboys' season had gone, it would never end with coach Jason Garrett and his players watching the final day play out with their feet up, coasting into the playoffs. It wouldn't fit. It had to be like this.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins on Sunday night. Prime time. A playoff spot and NFC East crown for the winner. Just like last year, when it was Giants-Cowboys. Like it should be.
(For the loser? Well, that'd be the end of the road for the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the 'Skins can back their way into a wild-card spot, but only if the Bears and Vikings go down earlier on Sunday. Complete playoff scenarios here.)
Sure, it would have been nice for Dallas to extend its winning streak to four games, as opposed to losing to the New Orleans Saints, 34-31, in overtime in front of 92,570 at Cowboys Stadium. Sunday would have been more pleasant had the Cowboys recovered New Orleans receiver Marques Colston's fumble down to the 2-yard-line that Jimmy Graham wound up corralling to secure the Saints' victory.
But this defeat didn't ruin the Cowboys. Not even close. Not in a season that has featured a cat-like nine lives. It only ramped up the enthusiasm for next week.
"I think we always thought ... we were going to have to win this game against the Redskins," owner Jerry Jones said. "It certainly turns out we do. I never thought that we wouldn't have to win the game against the Redskins to have life after the regular season."
That's where they are. Win, and they are in. Same for the Redskins in an ultra-competitive NFC East. As for the defending champion New York Giants, their plight isn't so simple. They need to beat the Eagles, have the Redskins defeat/tie the Cowboys and have both the Bears and Vikings lose.
In one of the league's stoutest divisions, a logjam has promised to deliver drama one last time. That's why, even with the frustrating ending for the Cowboys on Sunday and the way they wasted a stirring comeback, they must turn the page quickly.
"The optimism will start 24 hours probably from now," quarterback Tony Romo said immediately following the game. "Right now, it's just a tough thing to think about."
There were regrets. Running back DeMarco Murray's anger with a momentum-turning, third-quarter fumble that he said "shouldn't have come out." The third-and-5 incompletion on the Cowboys' overtime possession that would have kept them on the field. The replay that could have overturned Colston's catch five minutes into OT -- with cornerback Morris Claiborne saying to himself at the time, "Please let the pass be incomplete" -- but didn't.
"It's very difficult when you definitely know you should have won the game," said Murray, who had 11 rushes for 40 yards. "You've got to give a lot of credit to those guys, but we definitely let this one slip away from us. It is what it is. We've got to continue to fight and we've got another game next week. Hopefully, we'll make a splash."
The opportunity certainly exists.
Suddenly, the Cowboys have a chance to mimic last season's Giants. All season, they've looked at Big Blue's wondrous march to the Super Bowl XLVI title and wondered, Why couldn't we do that? Well, here's your shot.
"It's amazing how you play every week and you don't think about what's ahead or anything but your opponent," said Romo, who completed 26 of his 43 passes for 416 yards and four scores on Sunday. "But, that's the only reason you really play, in a lot of ways, is to get your team into that position and to get in the playoffs, so you can have a chance. When you get in, anything can happen. I know that. We've seen that far too many times. We just need to do the right things to get in."
So much of this Cowboys season has been about being handed a frustrating outcome, coming to grips with it, then moving forward. On the field, it's led to early deficits and five fourth-quarter comebacks -- six if you include Sunday's futile attempt. Off the field, it has them answering questions about Garrett's job status, with Sean Payton possibly waiting in the wings. Further off the field, it included handling the tragic death of practice squad player Jerry Brown Jr. -- and the complicated reality that defensive tackle Josh Brent is to blame -- then winning a day later.
Sunday, it revolves around beating their bitter rival, the Redskins, who boast the talents of Robert Griffin III. All he did last time was drop four touchdowns on Dallas' head in a near-perfect Thanksgiving performance that left Jones "in awe." Defensive end Marcus Spears feels the Cowboys will be better prepared this time, and perhaps they will. Because when they take the field Sunday, everything they've wanted is at stake.
"This team's got a lot of fight to come back the way we have and continue to do," said tight end Jason Witten, who had six catches for 60 yards. "There's something about this team. You're proud to be a part of it. We've got to move forward. We have an opportunity to go to the playoffs."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
Keeping it going ...
A week from today is Black Monday, the ugly and necessary day in the NFL when more than a handful of coaches will be told they are not longer fit to work in their current jobs. Disappointment will carry the day, with front-office brass and fans alike mulling the future. Yet sometimes, the best moves are the ones you don't make. Remember that a week from today.
Think Cincinnati Bengals fans do, too? In the same offseason, Cincy decided not to use a 4-12 record as a reason to fire Marvin Lewis. And after the Bengals' gritty, 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday, Lewis has netted two straight playoff appearances, as well. Cincinnati had held the NFL's longest streak of years without back-to-back playoff appearances -- 29! -- until now. Instead of having to start over, the Bengals now have Lewis at the helm of one of the league's up-and-coming teams, fresh with young talent at the key offensive skill spots and a defense that is tough as nails up the middle. In other words, built to last in the AFC North.
One will do, especially when it cinches a playoff berth. Of course, the other is this week.
Peterson properly focused
Records are cool, and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hasn't been shy about saying he wants to break Eric Dickerson's mark for rushing yards in a season (2,105). He's been outspoken about his desire to be the MVP. And yet, there was Peterson on Sunday, all smiles after failing to eclipse 100 yards for the first time since Week 6.
That's because Minnesota took down the mighty Houston Texans on their home turf, 23-6, making sure their playoff hopes were very much alive. And because Peterson's focus has properly shifted to what is more important than numbers: Team wins. And the postseason. Asked about failing to reach 100 yards, he told reporters, "I'm happy right now."
What about not going in for the final series? Peterson said his backup, Toby Gerhart, did a good job "sticking a dagger in them. Mission completed."
No one will forget the incredible season Peterson has enjoyed, coming back from serious knee surgery last December to absolutely dominate. He doesn't need a record or even 2,000 yards to validate that. Leading his team to the playoffs is the ultimate prize.
What about Janoris Jenkins?
The battle for Offensive Rookie of the Year has garnered plenty of discussion, with RG3, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson attempting to outduel one another. But let's turn our attention to another award: the one for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
I'm throwing my support behind St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. His 41-yard pick-six in the Rams' 28-13 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers convinced me. For the rookie from North Alabama/Florida, it was his fourth interception, his fifth caused turnover and his fourth touchdown for a young defense that is playing over its head.
I know Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner is a machine, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David has impressed, Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward has made plays and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly will end the year with 843 tackles. I'll take Jenkins. A talented played in the perfect environment, a fantastic redemption story and a key cog of a supremely young team.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» It would be tough to imagine a more gruesome loss than the 55-7 defeat the Tennessee Titans suffered against the Green Bay Packers. That will make for some nervous members of the organization, with talent on the offensive side of the ball going underutilized and the defensive side a mess. Owner Bud Adams told TitansInsider.com, "We've got to do something to make this thing work." While analyzing this situation, though, don't forget Adams' affinity for Titans coach Mike Munchak, a respect built over decades. It remains to be seen if that alters any final decisions.
» If the Texans beat Indy on Sunday, no one will care that they lost at home to the Vikings. But Arian Foster precautionary removal or not, if they rush for just 36 yards, they aren't winning anything. Offensive ineptitude could haunt them in the playoffs.
» Say what you will about the Oakland Raiders, but they are not shy. What in the world was defensive tackle Tommy Kelly thinking telling reporters what he did on Sunday? In response to his quarterback Carson Palmer being knocked out of the game, Kelly said, "You take our guy out, we're going to go and try to take your guy out. We're not out to hurt someone, but when that happens ..." One wonders if Kelly might get a reminder from the league that talking openly about wanting to take out Cam Newton isn't very intelligent.
» If Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted to stamp out speculation about considering replacing Garrett with Payton, he could have been more definitive than this: "I have not even thought about anything different than Jason being our coach."
» Jimmy Graham has had a down season (for his ridiculous talents). He has an injured wrist, and the Saints tight end dislocated a finger during Sunday's win over Dallas. And yet, there he was, scrambling to recover that fumble in overtime, securing the game. New Orleans won't be in the playoffs this year. But that's a winning play. "We give all we have," Graham said.
» I feel for future rookie quarterbacks. How do they manage expectations after this season from Wilson, Luck and RG3? All three could be in the playoffs. And after Wilson's 17-second scramble to gain six yards, I'm not sure there's much he can't do.
» If the Baltimore Ravens want to talk a little smack to media members (like me) who wrote them off, go ahead. You've earned it.
» The Colts sent out the coolest media announcement ever after they outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs, 20-13, and earned a playoff spot. For Monday, Dec. 24, the schedule said simply, "12:15 p.m. -- Coach Available." That would be coach Chuck Pagano, in his first appearance since his cancer treatments ended. Welcome back.
» That's four wins in the last five games for the Panthers, making it very, very difficult to tell Ron Rivera he can't come back for Year 3. Stranger things have happened, but to my naked eye, this looks like progress.
» Assuming Norv Turner's on his way out, the next San Diego Chargers coach will inherit some stellar young talent up front on defense. Kendall Reyes' 3.5 sacks was just one example. That 23-year-old Corey Liuget had two of his own speaks to that, as well.
» Good teams fall left and right in today's NFL, such as the Texans losing at home to the Vikings. So, let's recognize the Atlanta Falcons for going on the road in a short week, facing a talented team like the Detroit Lions and winning by double-digits. This is as playoff-ready as Atlanta has been in years.
» When the Giants blew out the Packers on a Sunday night in late November, quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed out that during win streaks, weaknesses fly under the radar. "Sometimes, it takes a loss to handle those things," he said. Four games later, including a 55-7 win over the Titans, I think they've figured it out. Is anyone getting hotter, faster than the Pack?
» The Miami Dolphins had a very slim chance of making the playoffs prior to beating the Buffalo Bills, and even afterward, coach Joe Philbin barely mentioned it. Good move. It's all about 2013 in Miami.
» I didn't forget the Denver Broncos. They're just ridiculous. How much analysis can there be after their 10th win in a row, this one by 22 over the Cleveland Browns? If the Texans lose, who won't be fast-forwarding to a Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning AFC Championship Game?
» I'm sure Patriots fans aren't thrilled with a squeaker over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 23-16. But my sense has always been that Bill Belichick spends the last few games tinkering when he knows his team's spot in the playoffs is set. Sometimes, that leads to uneven games, which the Patriots usually win anyway. But the hope is it leads them to stronger performances in the playoffs.
» It's easy to see why teams remain interested in Jags defensive coordinator Mel Tucker when head-coaching jobs come up. Forcing Brady into two early interceptions and a difficult day with a depleted group was impressive.
» The Bills remain among the most frustrating teams in football. How does one outgain its opponent, accumulate 240 passing yards, have a 100-yard rusher and punt just four times, yet still score just 10 points? Try one Ryan Fitzpatrick interception and three fumbles. Maddening.
» Like so many, Greg McElroy had dreamed of opportunities like being the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. It's too bad that, under the intense pressure that led to 11 sacks, he never really had a chance.
» The Philadelphia Eagles will have seven game tapes from quarterback Nick Foles, all but one of them losses. Is that enough to tell if he's your quarterback of the future? What a difficult task for the offseason.
» Another inefficient day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who completed just 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. Not to mention, the Steelers converted just two of their 14 third-down attempts. Meanwhile, old coordinator Bruce Arians is in the playoffs with the Colts. Ouch.
» It's a lot to ask of any rookie. But since Bucs running back Doug Martin rushed for 251 yards on Nov. 4, he's averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. With the team losing five in a row, he seems worn down.
» The Bears still need help to make the playoffs, and it's fitting that their defense carried them in a 28-13 win over the Cardinals. Julius Peppers' big day (three sacks, one forced fumble) was one example of that unit taking over.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.