After a week off to relax and heal, the Dallas Cowboys will be lining up against a familiar foe in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
The Cowboys will be trying for their first playoff win in more than a decade Sunday when they host the New York Giants in the third meeting between the teams this season.
Dallas (13-3) has not won a playoff game since beating Minnesota 40-15 in the wild-card round of the 1996 season - a year after winning the Super Bowl. The drought is the longest in team history, but first-year coach Wade Phillips - 0-3 as a head coach in the playoffs with Denver and Buffalo - isn’t worried about it.
“They say, ‘They haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years,’ but you’ve only been in four (since that season),” Phillips said. “It’s not like you’ve been 10 years in a row and haven’t won one. Part of it is getting in there. If you get in there enough, you’re going to win your share.”
The Cowboys did make the playoffs last season, but lost 21-20 to Seattle in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Tony Romo botched the hold on a 19-yard field-goal attempt with 1:19 left and was stopped 2 yards from the end zone and 1 from a first down when he tried to run the ball.
“For it to end like that, and for me to be the cause, is very tough to swallow right now,” Romo said.
Romo, who spent the bye week with his starlet girlfriend Jessica Simpson in Mexico along with teammate Jason Witten and his wife, will likely have his favorite receiver back for Sunday’s game. Terrell Owens, who leads the NFC with 15 receiving touchdowns and ranks second with 90.3 receiving yards per game, missed Dallas’ season-ending 27-6 loss at Washington with a sprained left ankle.
Owens, though, practiced for the second straight day Friday and Phillips was hopeful about having his All-Pro receiver in the lineup Sunday.
“Terrell said he’s going to play and I believe him. I think he will attempt to play and we will let him,” Phillips said. “To what degree, at what level, remains to be seen in the game. Unless something unforeseen happens, I think he probably will (play).”
In order to end their playoff drought, the Cowboys will have to pull off a franchise first by beating the Giants (10-6) for the third time this season. Dallas has never completed a three-game season sweep of a team, but had a chance once, losing 20-7 to Arizona in a 1998 wild-card game in the most recent postseason game at Texas Stadium.
However, the 17 teams who have had the chance to beat a team three times in one season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have gone 11-6.
“I’m thinking about beating them one time. I’m not worried about what we did in the past,” safety Ken Hamlin said.
Dallas defeated the Giants 45-35 at home in its season opener Sept. 9 and 31-20 at Giants Stadium on Nov. 11.
“We’ve got (confidence), but they don’t want to go out a third time,” receiver Patrick Crayton said. “They are 1-0 in the playoffs, we are 0-0. This is a whole new season. Whatever went on in the regular season doesn’t matter. This is win or go home.”
The Giants’ season-opening loss in Dallas was their last on the road. Since then, New York has reeled off eight straight road victories, including a 24-14 win at Tampa Bay in the wild-card round Sunday.
“I think as a team we seem to perform better on the road,” Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. “I didn’t know we won eight in a row. That’s a great thing, because when it’s the playoffs, if we’re going to go as far as we want, we have to win every game on the road.”
Eli Manning won for the first time in three postseason games last week, completing 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Manning, who threw 23 TD passes and 20 interceptions during the regular season, has been criticized for his inconsistent play since being taken with the top pick in the 2004 draft, but quieted his critics Sunday - at least for one game.
“You can’t be satisfied with what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s about the bigger picture and keeping this thing going.”
Manning threw for four touchdowns and one interception in Dallas on Sept. 9, but was picked off twice while throwing just one TD pass in the rematch in November.
“Eli showed that no matter what, he’s going to hang in there. He’s going to figure out a way to get it done,” said Strahan, who had nine tackles and one sack against the Buccaneers.
Center Shaun O’Hara (left knee) and cornerback Sam Madison (stomach) were inactive last week after getting injured in New York’s season-ending 38-35 loss to New England, and Coughlin is unsure whether they can play against the Cowboys. However, Grey Ruegamer, who filled in for O’Hara, and Corey Webster, who played for Madison, both had strong games against Tampa Bay.
Webster had an interception, recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half and limited Joey Galloway, the Bucs’ 1,000-yard receiver, to one catch for 9 yards.
The top-seeded Cowboys, meanwhile, took advantage of the bye week to rest their injured players. Receiver Terry Glenn, who made his season debut in the season finale but came out after taking some hard hits, figures to get more playing time Sunday. Dallas is also hopeful that center Andre Gurode, who’s nursing a knee injury, can return.
The Cowboys, however, don’t have much momentum heading into the playoffs. Despite matching the best record in team history, Dallas went 2-2 in December and failed to score a touchdown in either loss.
“With 16 games, it’s tough to be really good in every game,” Phillips said. “(In some recent games) it wasn’t like, `Man, we’ve got to win this game!’ Now, we’re in a big game, so we’ll see how we play. But I think we’ll play fine.”
The NFC East rivals will be meeting in the playoffs for the first time.