Clinch the NFC East and, as we learned Sunday, somebody hands you ball caps with “Division Champions” stitched across the front.
You also get T-shirts bearing a freshly ironed-on reality:
“Cowboys Run the East.”
But the best souvenir that the Dallas Cowboys wore home Sunday wasn’t like jewelry or Italian shoes.
It was validation — a ringing, crowd-roaring 42-7 affirmation that the drought was over.
Five years after their last appearance in the postseason, 19 seasons since their last Super Bowl, owner Jerry Jones’ Cowboys are headed back to the NFL playoffs.
Their quarterback is setting records. Their defense keeps finding a way.
“It’s just belief,” Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. “I harp on belief all the time. Believe, believe, believe.
“I was telling everybody this off-season to look around this locker room. We’ve got the talent. You’ve just got to sharpen the talent, train it, make it believe, and the coaches did a great job of that.
“We went out there, we didn’t know what to expect, and the Ws just started tallying up.”
The 11th of those wins was tallied Sunday amid stunningly minimal resistance. The Cowboys performed, appropriately, as if their postseason lives depended on the outcome. The Indianapolis Colts, meanwhile, played as if they came only for the barbecue and the frequent flier miles.
It ended virtually as soon as it began when, 10 minutes into the game, the Colts saw something that triggered a fake punt from their own 19-yard line.
“It was a great play the way it was drawn,” safety Barry Church said. “The guy was open.”
Alone at his own 35, alas, Colts rookie Dewey McDonald dropped the pass.
Blood was suddenly in the water. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw a touchdown pass to Dez Bryant on the very next play.
After that, Indianapolis’ next eight possessions ended with five punts, two interceptions and a lost fumble.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys were scoring touchdowns the first four times they had the football.
As Church observed, “You could tell their players didn’t really want it today, because there were a whole bunch of dropped passes. There were five or six dropped passes, which could have been first downs and momentum swingers.
“But they didn’t make the plays, and we did.”
Granted, the Colts were stunted by key injuries and, perhaps, the inevitable letdown from having clinched their own playoff spot the week before.
But good teams — teams rolling through the NFL December — seize those opportunities. Since the Thanksgiving debacle against Philadelphia, the Cowboys have outscored their opponents 121-62 and trailed for only 4 minutes, 57 seconds.
“Romo MVP, Romo MVP — that’s all you need to know,” Mincey said.
“Everybody is playing their part. The leaders are doing their jobs, and that’s the formula for success.”
Let me suggest, though, that the formula runs deeper than that, deeper than Romo’s passing yardage and thicker than the souvenir shirts.
After three straight seasons of overseeing his team’s 8-8 futility, Owner Jones has earned a measure of validation as well. His customary heavy hand has not pulled this team in its usual wayward direction. Jones clearly has trusted his people this time — notably, his son Stephen, the scouts, the new coordinators, personnel whiz Will McClay and head coach Jason Garrett.
“I really can’t tell you that I haven’t looked back on decisions,” Jones said Sunday. “Do I second-guess them? Yes, I do. I sure do.
“On the other hand, I know that there’s no Superman out here making these decisions.”
When asked what Sunday’s accomplishment meant to him personally, Jones tossed the compliment toward his coaching staff.
“It is representative and indicative of a lot of hard work,” he said.
Five years since the Cowboys last visited the postseason, 19 seasons since the franchise last played in the Super Bowl, Owner Jones and his team are headed back to the NFL playoffs.
The Ws don’t lie.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697