IRVING, Texas — Dallas was in desperate need of a victory when Jason Garrett made his successful head coaching debut with a win on the road against the New York Giants midway through last season.
The Cowboys are back in a similar situation, and there is even more on the line as Garrett has come full circle.
Garrett's 24th game, the finale of his first full regular season, is another trip to face the Giants. The winner Sunday night in the matchup of 8-7 teams clinches the NFC East title and the NFC's last playoff spot, which will mean a home game in the wild-card round the following weekend.
"Whenever you put yourself in a position like that going into the final game of the season, you've done a lot of good things," Garrett said. "We've had our share of excellent victories and we've had our share of disappointment just like every team in this league has. And one of the best things our team has done individually and collectively we have played through the adversities and the successes we have had."
It's not Garrett's style to reminisce about his head coaching debut, a surprising 33-20 win against the Giants. At least publicly, where he instead stresses to his players being their best each day and focusing only on what is directly ahead of them.
"It wasn't for the playoffs, so it wasn't as important as this game," defensive end Marcus Spears said Wednesday. "I don't think that has anything to do with this time."
The winning debut by Garrett came six days after Wade Phillips was fired and he was promoted from offensive coordinator. That provided some hope for a squad that began the 2010 season with Super Bowl expectations and then won only one of its first eight games. Dallas went 5-3 the rest of the way under Garrett.
Now comes a winner-take-all finale that Dallas could have been able to avoid.
There was a 37-34 home loss three weeks ago against the Giants, who scored two touchdowns in the final 3½ minutes to overcome a 12-point deficit. Had they held on, the Cowboys would have had a two-game division lead with three to play instead of being tied.
There was also an overtime loss at Arizona, when Garrett's late timeout wiped out a go-ahead field goal by Dan Bailey at the end of regulation; the rookie missed the second attempt. There were two other losses this year when Dallas blew leads of at least 12 points in the fourth quarter — something that happened only twice in the franchise's first 50 seasons.
In his normal fashion, Garrett dismissed the idea of being frustrated about those blown opportunities and instead is talking about the excitement of what's possibly ahead.
"A lot of things go your way and some things don't go your way. For us, things have gone our way enough to give us this chance," Garrett said. "It's going to be a great challenge, it's going to be a great night."
Not if the Cowboys lose, like they did three years ago at Philadelphia, in another regular-season finale against an NFC East rival when they only had to win to get into the playoffs.
"It's just sheer determination. Coach Garrett talks about will. It's heart, determination," said linebacker Bradie James, one of several key players who were also part of that 2008 game. "They know us, we know them. It's really going to be whoever outlasts the other. That's how you break it down. I like to keep it as simple as possible. In my mind, that's our solution"
Garrett was the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys back then, when they lost three of their last four games to miss the playoffs after that 44-6 debacle against the Eagles.
"That's a lot of lifetimes ago. Our team has really changed a lot since then," Garrett said. "I'd like to think that we've all grown individually as players, coaches and certainly as a football team. If you go about it the right way every day and approach it the right way and learn from the different experiences you certainly will do that."
In the first of his seven seasons as a backup quarterback for the Cowboys, Garrett was part of the 1993 finale on the road against the Giants. That game was also for the division title, with both teams already in the playoffs but fighting for a first-round bye.
Despite a separated shoulder, Emmitt Smith ran 32 times for 168 yards and had 10 catches for 61 yards in that game, a 16-13 overtime victory for the Cowboys on the way to their second consecutive Super Bowl title.
"It was really one of the great games I've ever been around as a player or a coach. A lot of people talk about Emmitt's performance and it was rare, maybe his best ever," Garrett said. "To be there and witness that was really something special, but it was a great team effort as well.
"I don't know that there is a great story to tell our team," he said. "I think they understand the challenges we have every week and the challenges we have this week going up there."