- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2014

During a Redskins loss earlier this season, safety Ryan Clark remembers hearing words of reassurance from the stands at FedEx Field.

“It’s okay,” the fans yelled, “as long as ya’ll beat Dallas.”

The grandeur of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry has largely dissipated over the past two decades, but the framework of that rivalry remains. Though the Redskins have finished last in the NFC East in six of the past seven seasons, including this one, a few victories over Dallas have been bright spots. And though the Cowboys have usually finished higher in the standings, meetings with the Washington have at times given them problems.

“Anytime the Redskins play the Cowboys, it doesn’t matter what your record is,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said earlier this week. “It should be great motivation.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Redskins could salvage a bit of satisfaction in an otherwise miserable season by beating the Cowboys at FedEx Field and sweeping the season series. The difference between finishing 5-11 and 4-12 is relatively small, but a win would allow Washington to enter the offseason with back-to-back wins over its two largest division foes. And that momentum could go a long way.

“I think it’s going to change the psyche,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “Obviously when you look at a 4-12 record, 5-11 record, you think, ‘Wow, that team sucks.’ But when we go back and look at it, we’ve got a chance to be .500 in the division, which has maybe two 10- or 11-win teams in it. I think that’s a very positive outlook, if you want to look at it that way, to know that we can compete with the teams in our division.”

At one point, the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry was among the best in the sport. From 1970 to 2000, the two teams reached the Super Bowl a combined 13 times and won eight of them. In the 13 years since, they’ve managed to reach the playoffs only seven times, with just one postseason win apiece.

With the Redskins constantly imploding and the Cowboys mired in mediocrity, the tenor of the rivalry has taken a turn. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said division rivalries evolve according to a team’s record.

“I think it always depends on just how the teams are doing,” Romo said. “I mean, everybody in the NFC East — I feel like we have a rivalry with Philly, there’s one with the Giants, another one or different one with the Redskins. And in each case, it’s just playing well when teams are consistently good.”

“Over the course of history and time, the Redskins have been one of the better teams in the National Football League over a 40-year span. So have the Cowboys. So I think that created just a great rivalry between both organizations.”

Dallas clinched the NFC East title last weekend with a 42-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts and Washington’s 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Coach Jason Garrett said he plans to play his starters Sunday, but he knows there is little at stake. In order for the Cowboys to clinch a first-round bye, they would need both Seattle and Arizona to lose or one of four games to end in a tie.

For Gruden, winning Sunday’s game is as much about building something for next season as it is finishing this one. “I think it will entice people to work a little bit harder in the offseason and get back to work,” Gruden said. It would also mark a two-win improvement from last year, when Washington lost its final eight games en route to a 3-13 record.

“Everybody wants to win their last game of the year,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said, “whether it’s the Super Bowl or it’s the last game of the season for you because you’re not going to the playoffs. The way we approach it is this is our last game. We want to go off into our offseason on a good note.”

Clark, however, doesn’t believe that season-ending wins carry over into the summer. And he doesn’t think a victory Sunday, even over a fierce division rival, would change the tone of this season as a whole.

“Not to me,” the 13-year veteran said. “If we beat Dallas, that’ll be five wins. So no matter who they’re against, you only won five games. And that’s not good enough. That doesn’t put you with an opportunity to play in the playoffs, and let’s not be mistaken: we don’t get paid to practice football. We get paid to win football games.”

Though Clark and others will view this season as a failure regardless of Sunday’s outcome, a win over Dallas would appease at least a section of the fan base. And for some players, it would offer welcome relief in a trying season.

“We want to end this season on a winning streak,” Williams said. “We’ve lost enough games. We definitely don’t want to lose any more.”

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