On Sunday, at least one of the clubs - and perhaps both - will officially shed that label.
Though both teams are coming off disheartening losses that damaged their playoff hopes, Dallas can still reach the playoffs with a victory in Philadelphia, while the Eagles need a win and help earlier in the day to avoid being home for January for the third time in four years.
Both NFC East rivals opened their seasons with blowout victories and were clicking on offense when they collided at Texas Stadium on Sept. 15. The lead changed hands seven times in the entertaining affair, which Dallas won 41-37 behind 312 yards passing and three touchdowns from Tony Romo.
But the inconsistent Cowboys (9-6) have had trouble recapturing that form lately. After a midseason stumble that came with Romo injured, his return sparked a three-game win streak to close November but they have lost two of three games this month, falling victim to some of the best defenses in football.
Dallas turned the ball over five times in a 20-13 loss at Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, then after a 20-8 win over the New York Giants the following week, the team lost 33-24 to Baltimore last Saturday night in the final game at Texas Stadium. Romo totaled five interceptions in the two losses—he had none against the Giants—and he’s been sacked nine times in the last three games after being sacked eight times through his first nine starts.
“It’s all just part of a full season,” Romo said. “We’ve got to find a way to grind it out and get into the tournament. If you get in, you have a chance. It’s a matter of doing the things it takes to get you in position.”
With Tampa Bay and Philadelphia losing last Sunday, it turned out the Cowboys could have all but clinched a playoff spot with a win over the Ravens, but their long stretch of problems in December continued. They’re already assured of a 12th straight season without a winning record in the 12th month, and they’ve lost five straight December games against Philadelphia - including a 10-6 home loss last year.
Now, they need a win over the Eagles to claim the NFC’s final wild card spot, while a loss will leave them out. They haven’t won in the postseason since 1996.
In order to get there, Dallas’ offense may need to improve. The unit had only five first downs through three quarters against the Ravens, and even a late rally wasn’t enough as Baltimore broke off a pair of touchdown runs longer than 75 yards in the final four minutes.
The Steelers and Ravens are the top two defenses in the NFL in yards allowed. The Eagles rank third, giving up 292.1 per game, meaning the Cowboys will have a tough task to turn it around offensively.
“I wish I could put a finger on what it is that’s causing us to let it slip like we have. But I can’t,” tight end Jason Witten said. “Obviously you get excited if (playoffs hopes remain alive), but it’s bigger than that. We’ve got to figure out a way to play better football because this isn’t going to cut it.”
One bright spot for Dallas has been the running of rookie Tashard Choice. With Marion Barber ailing and rookie Felix Jones out for the season, Choice has racked up 424 yards from scrimmage in the last three games.
Aside from the late meltdown against Baltimore, the Cowboys defense has also tightened in recent weeks, with the unit allowing one touchdown in the previous three games. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware has tormented quarterbacks all season, and his NFL-leading 20 sacks are three shy of breaking Michael Strahan’s NFL record.
He could create problems on Sunday for the Philadelphia offense, which has been hot and cold this season but struggled mightily in a 10-3 loss at Washington on Sunday. The Eagles had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds, but Reggie Brown caught Donovan McNabb’s pass just inches shy of the end zone as time ran out.
“The implications of this game were enormous for this team,” Brown said. “And unfortunately we didn’t get it done in the end. It’s something that’s heavy on your chest.”
The Eagles (8-6-1) would have controlled their own destiny for a playoff berth with a victory, but now they need a win over Dallas, a Tampa Bay loss (against Oakland) and a loss by either Chicago or Minnesota to make the postseason.
All of the other relevant games take place at 1 p.m. EST, while Philadelphia’s game was pushed to 4:15, so coach Andy Reid’s club will know by the time it takes the field whether it has a chance.
“You can’t worry about all the different things that you can’t control,” Reid said. “You just have to go play, that’s the important thing.”
The Eagles will almost certainly have to play better. Before last week, they had won three straight games, averaging 32.7 points and 153.0 rushing yards, but last Sunday they looked more like the team that went 0-2-1 from Nov. 9-23.
Several dropped passes plagued Philadelphia’s receivers against the Redskins, and the Eagles ran the ball just three times on their final six possessions.
“We probably could have run it a few more times,” Reid said.
The Eagles have been much better at home this season, going 5-2 and averaging nearly 30 points, but Dallas got 174 receiving yards and a touchdown from Terrell Owens in a 38-17 win at Lincoln Financial Field last season.
Owens had 89 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Week 2, the fifth time he had faced his former team since his ugly split with Philadelphia in 2006. He needs 51 yards for his ninth 1,000-yard season.