Dozens of things happen each year that shape a team for better or for worse. Injuries, suspensions, tragedies, tough breaks, lucky bounces, hot streaks, slumps, well-timed pep talks, ill-timed flat efforts.
The Dallas Cowboys have dealt with everything above, seemingly on multiple occasions. As a result, they've built more character than anyone could have expected from a team criticized in recent years for lacking exactly that. They're resilient, hardworking and willing to sacrifice. They're a cliché, but in a good way.
And now they have a chance to extend a very memorable season with one more victory.
Here's my last state-of-the-union-style breakdown of America's Team.
What They Should Be Thinking
Our depleted defense is being exposed. Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Barry Church, Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman and Josh Brent are all gone, and DeMarcus Ware, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick are far from 100 percent. As a result, we've given up at least 27 points in four of our last five games and have surrendered more points than all but three other teams since Week 10.
The chips are stacked against us in the finale. Not only have we lost eight of our last 10 Week 17 games, but we'll have our hands full with Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon and a team that has won six straight games overall. Plus, we're on the road and in the cold weather, which some say works to Washington's advantage as well.
Maybe our bubble is bursting. Even when healthy, we don't usually deliver in these spots, so there's probably a chance we run out of gas at some point Sunday night.
We still managed to win two of those four games in which we recently gave up at least 27 points, and we've won five of of our seven second-half games because we've scored the third-most points in the NFL during that stretch.
Since Week 10, Dez Bryant has nearly twice as many touchdowns as any other receiver in the game and is only trailing Calvin and Andre Johnson in the yardage category. And dating back to Week 9, Tony Romo leads the NFL with 2,612 passing yards, has a 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has the league's third-highest passer rating.
With DeMarco Murray getting healthier by the week and the offensive line improving in pass protection, we're in better shape now than we were when we lost to the Redskins in Week 12.
We're not happy that we lost while giving up 34 points to the Saints in Week 16, but we're over it now. The loss won't matter at all so long as we beat the Redskins. And history shows that the original losing team often fares better in rematches.
We almost stormed back to win that first game, and we've overcome so much this year that we're still very confident we can control this one and head to the playoffs having won six of our final eight games (and four of our last five on the road).
What I'm Thinking
Stock Rising (Offense): Dez Bryant
Seven of the top eight games of Bryant's career have come since Oct. 1. His best yet came Sunday, with 224 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches (and zero drops). All that despite only being able to use nine fingers.
Stock Rising (Defense): Jason Hatcher
It appeared he was fading, but then Hatcher fought back against the Saints to have his best game of 2012, recording four stops, eight tackles, a hurry and a batted pass in a losing effort (per Pro Football Focus).
Stock Dropping (Offense): Miles Austin
It's not really Austin's fault. I guess it's just a byproduct of Bryant's emergence that he's hasn't hit the 80-yard mark since Week 8.
Stock Dropping (Defense): Anthony Spencer
Quiet day against New Orleans, despite the fact the Dallas defense was on the field all afternoon. He'll take some heat if he doesn't bounce back in the finale.
View last week's report here