Before 2018, the Dallas Cowboys have only made the playoffs six times since the end of the 90s Dynasty. The last four of those postseason appearances have ended in the Divisional Round. Dallas hopes to end that cycle and return to the NFC Championship game by beating the Los Angeles Rams this Saturday night.
Indeed, the Cowboys have not played in the conference title game since the 1995 season. They would go on to defeat the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, the fifth and last time that Dallas brought home a Lombardi Trophy.
In the 2003 and 2006 seasons, the Cowboys made the playoffs as a Wild Card. Led by Quincy Carter in '03 and first-year starter Tony Romo in '06, they lost both of those road games and were tossed in the first round.
Since then, Dallas has made it to the second, Divisional Round in their last four playoff runs. Two of those were by winning in the first round, and the other two by earning a first-round bye in the regular season.
Unfortunately, all four runs ended the same way:
- 2007: Cowboys go 13-3 to earn bye week, then lose at home to wild card Giants.
- 2009: Cowboys go 11-5 and beat Eagles in Wild Card Round, but then get blown out 34-3 when they face the Minnesota Vikings in Divisional Round.
- 2014: Cowboys go 12-4 and beat Lions in first round, but then lose on the road to Green Bay Packers in Divisional.
- 2016: Cowboys go 13-3 and earn bye week, but again lose to Packers as the home team.
Bye week or no bye week, at home or on the road, Dallas hasn't be able to get the job done in the second round. It's a streak that they desperately want to end this Sunday in Los Angeles.
Of course, a lot of changes over the course of these many seasons. Other than long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, nobody remains on the roster from the 2007 and 2009 teams. Even Jason Garrett was still just the Offensive Coordinator then.
There's even been tremendous turnover since just 2014, with Romo, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant all moving on. Even Sean Lee, while still on the roster, has gone from the defensive cornerstone to an aged backup.
But even thought we're now firmly in the era of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and DeMarcus Lawrence, something still feels familiar about this 2018 season and playoff run. It bears many similarities to the Cowboys' 2009 season.
And hopefully, it's going to end a different way.
The 2009 Dallas Cowboys returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Two years before, they'd gone 13-3 and enjoyed a first-round bye. But then the Giants came to Dallas in the Divisional Round and pulled off a demoralizing upset win on their way to the Super Bowl.
In 2008, they'd gone 8-4 before December and were poised for another playoff berth. But the team collapsed with a 1-3 finish to close the season, narrowly missing the tournament after a blowout loss to the Eagles in Week 17.
There was some real concern at the start of 2009. Dallas went 2-2 to start the year and was struggling offensively, only scoring 17 points total in Weeks 3 and 4. They needed a spark.
In Week 5, that spark came in the form of Miles Austin. Wearing #19, Austin had a breakout game while helping Dallas get a road win in overtime over Kansas City. He would finish the year with over 1,300 receiving yards, joining the nucleus of the Cowboys' offense with Romo and Witten.
The Cowboys got hot the same time Austin did, finishing the season 11-5 and winning the NFC East. They then picked up the first playoff win of the Tony Romo era, beating the wild card Eagles at home.
After a week of jubilation, and a sense that Dallas was about return to past glory, they went into Minnesota for the Divisional Round. They limped out after one of the worst playoff losses in NFL history, getting decimated 34-3 by Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, and the rest of the 2009 Vikings.
So, why do I say that this 2018 season feels similar?
This year's Cowboys are also returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence. In 2016, they went 13-3 and then got shocked at home in the Divisional Round, same as the 2007 team.
This 2018 team also floundered the next year, though that was helped along by Ezekiel Elliott's suspension. But even when Zeke came back, Dallas had disappointing December losses that ruined a potential return to the postseason.
This year, much like in 2009, Dallas struggled on offense out of the gate. It wasn't until a new receiver arrived, also wearing #19, that things changed. This also team got hot, finished the year strong, and won the division.
Just like in 2009, the Cowboys picked up a monumental win in the first round. Back then it was Tony Romo's first playoff victory, and this year it was Dak Prescott's.
And once again, Cowboys Nation is riding high.
This time around it's the Los Angeles Rams waiting instead of Minnesota, but still a team who had a big regular season and just enjoyed a week off. It has plenty offensive firepower, led by one of the best running backs in the game. It has a defense led by one of the best defensive linemen to every play.
Again, similarities. But this is where we all hope they end.
The 2018 Dallas Cowboys have a chance to do something that Romo, Witten, Austin, Ware, and Dez never did. They can get this franchise back to the NFL's Final Four for the first time in 23 years.
The haunting memories of 2009 and other Divisional Round exits can't be shaken, and won't lose their sting, until someone gives this story a new ending.