LANDOVER, Md. -- When Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten opened training camp in July with his "it can't be the same old story" mantra, he was talking about the team failing to live up to expectations and finishing another season with a sour taste in its mouth.
Witten was still bitter from the 31-14 season-ending loss at the New York Giants in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC East title and a playoff berth. The Cowboys went home and the Giants won the Super Bowl.
Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine the Cowboys would be facing the same scenario at the end of this season.
But here the Cowboys are, against the Washington Redskins today in a win-or-go-home game for the division title and a playoff berth.
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If Witten and the Cowboys don't want it to experience the same old story, then this is their chance to alter history.
Former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III led the Redskins to a 38-31 victory against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. But Witten is confident this game and this season will end differently.
"It can't be the same old story," Witten said Thursday. "It's hard to get in this situation and play for a division title. It's a great opportunity for us. Hopefully, those past experiences have helped develop us, so we can be better in this situation. It's a different experience. Obviously, different opponent, and it's going to be a tough challenge. I don't think the stage is too big for us. We just haven't won those games [against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 and Giants last season]."
The goal for the Cowboys is not just making the playoffs, but to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
But a Cowboys team that has missed the playoffs the past two years and has only won one playoff game since 1996 knows it can't reach the larger goals if it doesn't take care of business against the Redskins.
The Cowboys have failed in this situation too often in the past.
The Cowboys are 2-10 in the final game of the regular season since 2000. That is the worst record in the league. They lost a win-or-go-home game to the Eagles 44-6 in 2008.
While the Cowboys have a number of players on the roster for tonight's game who weren't on the team last year, let alone know about failures of the past decade, the veteran core of stars, such as Witten, quarterback Tony Romo and linebacker DeMarcus Ware, remember the bitterness vividly. They have used it as motivation, and have passed the message on to the uninitiated about the empty feelings of last year and past disappointments.
"This is one of those types of game where you learn from last season to get you to where you are right now," Ware said. "Last season, we weren't able to pull it out, but we had that opportunity. Now guess what? They say lightning doesn't strike twice. But it has. Now we have an opportunity to be exactly where we need to be. It's amongst the guys if we want it or not."
The Cowboys have battled back from a 3-5 start with five wins in the past seven games to put themselves in contention for the playoffs.
They have done so by adhering to coach Jason Garrett's repetitive message of one game at a time. And that's what it comes down to today -- winning one game to reach the playoffs.
"You are playing to make it to the game, the main game," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "The best thing for us to do is use what we experienced this year and win one game."
With that being said, the opportunity in front of them is motivation enough. There is no need for the added pressure of making up for last year or the past failures.
The Cowboys say they are simply excited about the opportunity after going through the tragic death of practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown, the loss of six defensive starters because of season-ending injuries and the 3-5 start.
Nobody has symbolized the Cowboys' rebound more than Romo, who has thrown 17 touchdowns and three interceptions during a recent seven-game surge after starting the season with 10 touchdowns and a then NFL-high 13 interceptions through the first eight games.
Romo and the Cowboys spent the past two months in desperation mode.
"I think as a competitor as an athlete you love playing in these games," Romo said. "We've been playing in a playoff game here for a while now, and we're just going to put our head down and keep running."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.