America’s Team is Back

The dynastic days of the ’70s and ’90s are long gone, but the Dallas Cowboys are winning again and that makes them impossible to ignore
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Like the sight of a man-hugging Chris Christie in his lucky day-glo orange sweater, I’m finding it almost impossible to look away from the Dallas Cowboys these days. When the Cowboys matter—and it feels like forever since they have—they seem to command the stage like no other NFL team. And here’s the part that many of us find hard to admit, but remains inescapable: It’s good for the NFL when Dallas is relevant. Love ’em, loathe ’em, or downright despise ’em, the Cowboys as winners make for good theater, and good theater is always worth watching.

You don’t have to root for Dallas to realize there’s something nostalgic about the Cowboys being in Super Bowl contention again. For those of us who grew up and fell in love with the NFL in the 1970s, Super Bowl contention was the Cowboys’ default setting that decade. They went to five Super Bowls in a nine-year span, winning twice and losing three times, with those defeats coming by a combined total of just 11 points. The Cowboys were always knocking on the door to the throne, and you were either with them or wholeheartedly against them. There was no in between.

The dynastic days of the ’70s and ’90s are long gone, but Dallas still evokes a very familiar, reminiscent feeling, with those recognizable stars on the helmets, those cheerleaders on the sideline, and even the way its distinctive stadium plays on television, streaming light and shadows everywhere. A game with Dallas in it always seemed bigger and a little more dramatic when I was a kid, and I’m starting to get a bit of the same sense this season, too.

And let’s face it: After such an unsettling and controversial 2014, filled with topics and developments that put the league on the defensive, the NFL could use a little nostalgia this postseason. The Cowboys winning again is like comfort food for the football fan. Dallas is a magnet for attention, discussion and debate, and anything that gets people talking about matters beyond Roger Goodell’s judgment and authority is a welcomed respite about now.

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Just look at the bounty of topics the Cowboys have already produced for us in recent months: Dean Blandino on Jerry Jones’ party bus; Jerry playing team doctor in terms of Tony Romo’s back injury; Jerry pining for the Johnny Manziel pick he was all but forced to not make; DeMarco Murray’s record-breaking ground game; Michael Sam’s second shot in the NFL; Romo’s run of redemption in December; Rolando McClain’s improbable comeback and a Dallas defense no one saw coming; and lately, a full-blown refereeing controversy (and suggested conspiracy) in the aftermath of first-round win over Detroit. Oh, and don’t forget the national debate about a certain New Jersey Governor/Cowboys fan in the owner’s box (Darn, that missed high-five!).

You know the league and its NFC television partner, FOX, have to love it. The Cowboys remain a crown jewel franchise in the NFL, and while other big, tradition-rich NFC markets like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington all missed the playoffs, the Cowboys have turned the Big D back into the center of the football universe at the moment.

Dallas is the only team still alive in the NFC’s 10 biggest TV markets—the lone stars, as it were—and now we get a heaping dose of nostalgia and history this week as the Cowboys return to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field for the first time in the playoffs since the epic Ice Bowl in the 1967 NFL title game, which NFL Films has since transformed into a mythic event for the ages. Played on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve day, a little more than 47 years and a week ago, that Cowboys-Packers game added to the lore of both franchises and is on the Mt. Rushmore of NFL postseason games.

This year’s Dallas-Green Bay rematch won’t hold quite as much significance, given that it’s only the divisional round. But let the third-seeded Cowboys (13-4) upset the second-seeded Packers (12-4) and gain some revenge for 1967, and let’s see if a bit of modern-day legend doesn’t grow up around these Cowboys almost overnight.

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A win would also put Dallas in position to play for a Super Bowl berth the following Sunday in the NFC title game, a step the Cowboys haven’t taken in 19 long years, since their 1995 team beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX to earn a third ring in a four-year span. It might or might not surprise you, but all of the other teams in the NFL’s Elite 8 of the playoffs have been to a Super Bowl since Dallas last went—and six (all but Carolina) have earned at least one ring. (Green Bay, Baltimore, New England and Denver each won multiple Lombardi Trophies in that span.)

Fresh off staging the second-largest comeback in their storied playoff history last Sunday, a 24-20 victory over the Lions, the Cowboys are looking to extend their magic-carpet ride of a season. After the purgatory of three consecutive 8-8 seasons, and just one measly playoff win from 1997-2013, America’s Team has the country’s attention again.

For the Cowboys, their season has been a story about resurgence and redemption, and it’s a well-timed stroke of luck for the NFL, which happened to be in the market for a little redemption itself after the most tumultuous season ever. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Cowboys are winning again, and that makes them impossible to ignore. Somehow, for the first time in quite a while, all seems right in the NFL’s world.

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