FRISCO, Texas — Nearly two years ago to the day, the Dallas Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy with a clear goal: find postseason success.
They sought an experienced head coach to guide a talented roster where decades of predecessors could not go.
McCarthy emphasized before his inaugural season in Dallas that he expects to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl every year. Wait until 10 wins to truly discuss playoff possibilities, he insisted, but the expectation is there.
“This is about winning,” he told his team during training camp, via footage aired on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” docuseries. “Winning the world championship. Period. Period. Because that’s all that matters.”
Thursday, the Cowboys took a necessary step toward that goal. With the San Francisco 49ers’ loss to the Tennessee Titans, 10-4 Dallas has clinched a playoff spot.
But that’s not their primary goal.
Now, they hope to win through January and into February.
This postseason berth marks the Cowboys’ first playoff appearance in three seasons. If they beat Washington at home on Sunday Night Football this weekend, the Cowboys will clinch the NFC East. They could clinch the division even sooner if the Giants (4-10) win in Philadelphia (7-7) Sunday afternoon.
Playoff possibilities swirl.
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“Don’t let anybody tell you they’re not looking,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of keeping up with the Cowboys’ NFC playoff seeding. “I’ve got that all around me keeping up with every nuance plus me doing it with all my family, grandchildren as well as coaches and everyone else.”
McCarthy said his team is “aware” of the nuances but focused on the outcomes it can control. Division games await vs. Washington and at Philadelphia. Between those, the Cowboys host the 10-4 Arizona Cardinals.
The Cowboys enter late December with a streaking defense that has snatched four takeaways in three straight games for the first time since 1994. Each of those games, on the road, were wins. Dallas’ offense appeared to regain some rhythm in a 21-6 win over the Giants, but quarterback Dak Prescott and his receiving weapons know their ceiling is higher than reflected in recent play.
Still, the Cowboys pose a postseason threat for several reasons. Will they light an opponent up through the air? Will an offensive line featuring Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin and Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith manhandle defenders at the line of scrimmage? The Cowboys, when healthy, have a two-pronged rushing attack in powerful Ezekiel Elliott and shifty Tony Pollard. The weapons, when utilized effectively, abound. Only Tampa Bay (29.3) averages more points per game than the Cowboys’ 28.6, and Dallas leads the league in raw production with 403.3 yards per game.
On defense, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs leads the league with 10 interceptions and arguably still is not the unit’s most dangerous player. That award, some opponents reckon, goes to rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, whose football instincts and versatility create mismatch nightmares in the run game, as a pass rusher and even at times downfield in coverage. Add in defensive lineman knocking balls loose, as DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory have in December, and quarterbacks beware.
“It’s kind of confusing (for quarterbacks) when you see that many elite guys back there,” Parsons says.
The Cowboys are hardly infallible. The AFC West can vouch for that, with three of the Cowboys’ four losses coming vs. the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders. Their offense hasn’t fully rebounded since those contests, last week’s two touchdowns each resulting from turnover-aided short fields. Even players on offense admit defenses have put a cap on their looks, mandating that they adopt a patient game fueled mostly by short and intermediate throws. Red zone inefficiency has lingered. Prescott has told his teammates in game-plan meetings: It’s time to peak.
Warts aside, the Cowboys have locked up the first playoff spot of McCarthy’s tenure and could potentially go to sleep Sunday assured at least one home playoff game. One step at a time, says McCarthy, who promotes focusing on both winning and improving in December. But all acknowledge favorable outcomes loom.
“We understand what our NFC record is,” McCarthy said. We’re aware, but at the end of the day, we have to take care of what’s in front of us. We have three NFC games versus excellent opponents that are also fighting.
“It’s a good place to be.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys clinch spot in NFL playoffs after Titans beat 49ers