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Irving, Texas — The first day of the Dallas Cowboys' organized team activities, Jason Garrett stood before his team and had them envision something that hasn't happened here in 17 years.
"I said, 'Picture yourself holding the Super Bowl trophy over your head,'" Garrett said Monday. "That's the first thing out of my mouth (every year). 'So put that in the forefront of your mind. Really feel that. Feel that experience, where we all want to go?' Then, you say, 'OK, take that and put it in the back of your mind. Now what you need to do is focus on today. Focus on this Wednesday practice.'
"That's the mindset. They hear that from me a lot: This is where we want to go. This is where everybody wants to go. This is why we're doing all this stuff."
It's a pretty simple scenario for the Cowboys if they are to have a chance to do what they envisioned in May: They have to beat the Washington Redskins on Sunday night to extend their season.
The Redskins still have the possibility of a wild-card berth with a loss, though they'll know that fate by kickoff, but the Cowboys stay alive only by beating Washington. It's NFC East champions or bust for the Cowboys.
"We are excited about it," Garrett said. "You live for games like this. We have worked very hard to get to this point, and it will be a great challenge for us going up to Washington. But we played 15 ballgames, and we've got a chance to go play for the NFC East crown on Sunday night, so we are awfully excited about the opportunity."
A victory by the Cowboys would hand them the division title for the first time since 2009. As the No. 4 seed, they would host either the Seattle Seahawks or the San Francisco 49ers in a wild-card playoff game on the weekend of Jan. 5-6, likely Jan. 6.
But the Cowboys have to win first.
Dallas had the same chance to end last season and lost to the Giants 31-14. It had a chance for a playoff berth in the 2008 season finale and lost 44-6, to the Eagles. In 2009, the Cowboys already had secured a playoff berth but needed a victory over the Eagles in the season finale to win the division, and they beat Philadelphia 24-0.
So for the fourth time in five years, the Cowboys have a lot at stake in their final regular-season game.
"Experience can be a really positive thing," Garrett said. "Sometimes it can be a bad experience when you didn't get the job done, and hopefully you can learn from what happened, what you did or didn't do in that situation and go forward. We have a lot of different football players than we had over the last four or five years. We know that. Every year is a new team, but there have been some guys who were in those games as players and coaches, and hopefully we can benefit from those experiences."
The Cowboys have won five of their past seven games. Their 34-31 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday was forgotten when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Giants 33-14 later in the day. That was the help Dallas needed to regain control of its playoff destiny.
"We control our own destiny going forward," Garrett said. "We need to go win this ballgame, and then we're in the playoffs. .However you want to say it, this is a playoff game."