Cowboys' end game: A shot at the playoffs

IRVING -- With five victories in their past six games, the Dallas Cowboys are not only alive but well in the playoff chase.

The Cowboys' 27-24 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, combined with the New York Giants' 34-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, has Dallas in a three-way tie for the NFC East lead.

The Cowboys control their postseason destiny. With wins in their final two games -- against the New Orleans Saints in the final home game Sunday and then at the Washington Redskins on Dec. 30 -- the Cowboys will win the division for the first time since 2009.

"I think this is a destined team," Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said Monday during the team's annual Christmas visit to area children's hospitals. "I'm excited where we're going to go. I'm not going to say we're going to the Super Bowl, but I hope we go. We're going to take it one game at a time, one day at a time and see what God has in store for us."

No matter what, the Cowboys are assured of going into Week 17 still mathematically alive. They can neither clinch nor be eliminated this week against the Saints.

A loss to the Saints, though, would leave the Cowboys back in need of help to qualify. Not that Dallas is looking past Sunday's game.

The Cowboys have been through so much already, there is no chance they will get ahead of themselves.

"We knew after we lost the game [to the Redskins] on Thanksgiving, it was going to be like that. We were going to have to win out," Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer said. "We've just been taking it one game at a time, and not worrying about the next one. We've got the Saints up next, and we're just worried about that game and getting the win there."

The Cowboys have 12 players on injured reserve, including five starters, their nickel back and their punter. That doesn't count starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who is out for the rest of the regular season after having sports hernia surgery last week, or backup nose tackle Josh Brent, who is on the reserved non-football injury list.

Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware has elbow, shoulder and wrist injuries, which he has played through. Starting cornerback Morris Claiborne missed Sunday's game with a concussion.

The Cowboys had only five regular defensive starters against the Steelers, filling in with several players who just arrived in town.

Linebacker Brady Poppinga, signed Nov. 26, started Sunday. Nose tackle Brian Schaefering and cornerback Michael Coe, both of whom joined the team last week, each played 10 defensive plays. Safety Eric Frampton, who the Cowboys signed Sept. 25 for his special teams ability, played 29 of 60 plays.

"This is the closest team I've been on in any year I've been here, and I've been here eight years," Ware said. "You've got six starters that are out on defense. And you've got guys who have taken their spots, who have filled their roles. It's really not about the name on the back of the jersey. It's about how all 11 guys get together, play together with that passion and intensity, and do the right things. That's what we've been doing and, this December, it's been a whole different team."

Charean Williams


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