Surrounded by media at his locker inside AT&T Stadium, Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence summed up the Cowboys’ feelings less than an hour after the franchise’s first playoff victory since 2014.
“Y’all know this game is over, right?” Lawrence said. “I’m over it. I’m tired. It’s time for me to go to bed.”
It was barely 11 p.m. CT on Saturday, but Lawrence had a drive home, and he knew successful seasons in the Dallas organization are not defined by wild-card wins, but by the five Super Bowl trophies that greet visitors at The Star.
“We’re in a tournament where you win or go home, and we won,” quarterback Dak Prescott said at the podium Saturday night. “So we’re going on to the next one. It’s about moving forward now.”
The next one will be against the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round, with the Philadelphia Eagles knocking off the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The Eagles’ victory prevented a rematch of the Cowboys’ signature win of the regular season against the New Orleans Saints, a 13-10 decision at AT&T Stadium on Nov. 29, but perhaps opened up a cleaner path to the NFC Championship Game.
Once the Cowboys won the NFC East, the next goal was not just to win a wild-card playoff game. It wasn’t to play in an NFC Championship Game, either, or even Super Bowl LII. It was to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl.
“It’s a new week,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said, repeating a comment he made as he walked off the field Saturday night. “We all know where we want to be. Haven’t been there since ’95.
But there is a process to follow. The Cowboys need two more wins to reach Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, and they have not played in a conference championship game since winning Super Bowl XXX.
The only other teams not to make it to the NFC title game since then are the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. In fact, every other NFC team has been to the conference championship game at least twice.
The Cowboys had their 2007, 2009, 2014 and 2016 seasons end in the divisional round. In 2007 and 2016, the Cowboys let home-field advantage for the playoffs slip through their fingers with losses to the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
In 2009, the Cowboys were throttled by Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round, losing 34-3. In 2014, the Cowboys saw their season end cruelly when Dez Bryant’s goal-line catch against the Packers was overturned by replay, losing 26-21.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Cowboys’ nine playoff appearances without reaching a conference title game are tied for the second-longest streak since 1970. Only the Kansas City Chiefs have more (10) and they can snap their run next week, too. (The Miami Dolphins have made nine playoff appearances since making a conference title game.)
Eleven players remain with the franchise from the 2014 loss to the Packers. Fifteen more were around for the 2016 loss to the Packers.
After beating the Seahawks, the Cowboys had no preference for their next opponent. Why?
“Because I think it doesn’t matter who lines up across from us,” Elliott said. “You watched the game [Saturday]. We’re a great team. Great defense. We run. We hit. I don’t think teams want to see us.”
These Cowboys essentially have been playing playoff games since midseason, when they had a 3-5 record. They are battle-tested. They have come from behind for wins, as they did Saturday against the Seahawks. They have won low-scoring games (Saints). They have won high-scoring games (36-35 at the New York Giants in Week 17). They have answered fourth-quarter challenges (at Philadelphia, at Atlanta). They have won in overtime (vs. the Eagles).
Now the Cowboys have to do something they have not done since the 1992 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers: win a postseason game on the road. They have a seven-game road losing streak in the postseason.
Only 22 players on the current 53-man roster were alive when Alvin Harper made his big fourth-quarter catch that led the Cowboys to Super Bowl XXVII with their win at Candlestick Pak against San Francisco. Nose tackle Antwaun Woods was 2 weeks old.
But owner and general manager Jerry Jones believes the Cowboys have a team that can travel well, even though they were shut out by the Indianapolis Colts 23-0 in their last game away from AT&T Stadium.
“We’re physical,” Jones said. “Our defense is physical. Our offense is physical. We’ve had road experience.”
When presented with the opportunity to play a playoff game in his home state, Prescott did not bite. It was a business trip, but the final part of his answer was transferrable to the Rams, too.
“It’s about the Dallas Cowboys going to take care of business,” Prescott said.