Game of Week 17: Cowboys-Redskins
Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at Washington Redskins (9-6)
1. Déjà vu all over again
This is becoming an all too familiar scenario for the Cowboys: having to win their final regular season game, on the road, against a division foe, to get into the playoffs. This is the third time in the last five years. In 2008, they lost in Philadelphia. In 2010, they lost in New York.
Surely, this can't be good for Jerry Jones' holiday season blood pressure.
The playoffs officially begin with next weekend's wild-card round. For Dallas and Washington, they begin with Sunday night's nationally televised game at FedEx Field which, for all practical purposes, will be a postseason play-in game.
It's win or else for Dallas, which will advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 with a victory, or watch its season again end in anguish with a loss. Just when the Cowboys were making a late-season run -- they had won three games in a row -- they suffered a spirit-shaking 34-31 loss in overtime to New Orleans last Sunday.
The only thing bigger in D.C. right now than a solution to the Fiscal Cliff is the Redskins. Winners of six games in a row (the longest victory streak in the NFC) for the first time since 1996, when a fella named Norv Turner was their coach, they can capture their first division championship since 1999 with a victory over their longtime nemesis. Washington could lose and still nail down a playoff spot -- its first since 2005 -- if both Chicago and Minnesota lose in afternoon games. But its momentum would be gone.
This bitter rivalry has been waged for decades -- back to the '70s, when Tom Landry coached the Cowboys and George Allen patrolled the sideline for the Redskins. Often, a playoff spot was on the line. But it's been a long time since a Cowboys-Redskins game has meant so much to both teams.
2. London, the playoffs are calling.
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher will play in his 240th consecutive game and make his 199th straight start Sunday night -- a remarkable streak of durability for any NFL player, much less for one who came into the league in 1998 as a non-drafted, undersized linebacker out of John Carroll University, a Division III school. Now 37 and in his 15th season, the 5-10 Fletcher still is going strong, even though a lingering ankle injury has reduced his practice time during the week.
Fletcher leads the Redskins with 128 tackles (74 solo), has five interceptions and one sack. He is tied with Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber for the longest consecutive games streak among active players.
Originally signed by St. Louis in 1998, Fletcher has played with the Rams ('98-2001), Bills (2002-2006) and the Redskins (since 2007). He was on the Rams' Super Bowl championship team in 1999 and also played in the Super Bowl two years later, when St. Louis lost to New England. Since then, he has played in only one postseason game, for Washington -- a 35-14 loss to Seattle after the 2007 season.
Fletcher clearly is in the twilight of his career -- his contract with the Redskins expires after the 2013 season -- and one more trip to the playoffs for this iron man would be a nice achievement in a remarkable career.
"Every year I want to make the playoffs," Fletcher told SI.com. "This is something you strive for, you work hard for each year. This is the biggest regular season game we've had since I've been a Redskin."
3. Romo, Romo, where art thou?
Throughout his 10 seasons in the NFL, Tony Romo of the Cowboys has treaded a fine line between being one of the premier quarterbacks in the league and being one of its biggest underachievers. His critics never have forgotten that moment in a 2006 playoff game against Seattle when Romo fumbled the snap on an extra point attempt in the rain, costing Dallas a game-tying kick in an eventual 21-20 defeat.
That's ancient history. Here's what's happening now. Since Week 9 of this season, Romo has played lights out, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. Over the last four games, three of them victories, he has 10 scoring passes and only one pick.
Romo finally looks like the quarterback his fan club always believed he could be. This season, Romo has orchestrated five comebacks or game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. He has shown both poise and accuracy while delivering pinpoint passes to multiple receivers such as tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Dez Bryant in clutch situations.
Sunday night will be another defining moment in Romo's career. He can lead Dallas to a playoff-securing victory in a hostile environment, or he can add more fuel to the perception that he's not a big-time quarterback who can perform under pressure and win the big game.
The two quarterbacks in Sunday night's Dallas-Washington game are at two different points in their careers. Tony Romo of the Cowboys, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois in 2003, will make his 121st regular season start. Robert Griffin III of the Redskins, a former Baylor star who was the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, will make his 15th start. Here is a comparison of their 2012 seasons and where they rank in the league.
This will be the ninth time the Cowboys have faced the Redskins in a regular season finale. Dallas has won only three of the previous eight contests, and is 0-4 in D.C.
The Redskins are on a roll, even though rookie Kirk Cousins had to step in for the injured Griffin and start a Week 15 game against Cleveland. RG3, who led Washington to a 38-31 win over the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, returned last week against Philadelphia and showed no ill effects from the sprained knee he suffered against Baltimore on Dec. 9.
There will be an electric atmosphere Sunday night at FedEx Field. One team will punch its ticket for the playoffs. Unless the dominoes fall exactly as needed, the other will go home. "It'll be special for everyone involved, and it's the type of game you'll remember for a long time," Redskins tight end Chris Cooley told the Washington Post. "It'll be one of those games that can really change a franchise."
Redskins 23, Cowboys 21
Last week: Seahawks 27, 49ers 23
Season record: 11-5