Worst to First?

The big question has changed as the Cowboys' season progressed. First, critics asked: can this team improve on three consecutive 5-11 seasons? Then, can it have a winning season? Later, can the Cowboys make the playoffs?

The answer to all three was yes, but, now a new question presents itself: is this team ready for the playoffs?

The Cowboys, who clinched a playoff berth with a victory against the Giants last Sunday, still have a chance at their first NFC East title since 1998. A victory against the Saints Sunday coupled with a loss by the Eagles to the Redskins on Saturday would culminate in a worst to first scenario for a Cowboys team coming off three consecutive 5-11 campaigns.

At 10-5, the Cowboys already have won more games than the 1999 Dallas squad, which went 8-8 then lost in the first round. But that team had several star players, including quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith, who helped Dallas win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

As owner Jerry Jones sees it, the 2003 Cowboys more closely resemble the early-'90s teams that produced back-to-back world championships.

"It reminds me of the '90 and '91 teams because we've got players in here that we hadn't heard of before that are starting to get a chance to do it in important games," Jones said. "We didn't know what Mark Tuinei and Nate Newton and Jay Novacek were capable of, and, while we had a lot of high esteem for Troy and Emmitt, we didn't know what those guys really were until they played in games like today."

Only five starters -- Flozell Adams, Larry Allen, Dexter Coakley, Greg Ellis and Darren Woodson -- remain from the playoff team of four years ago. And only Allen and Woodson were starters when the Cowboys last won a playoff game, in 1996.

After enduring three 5-11 seasons before this year, Coakley said simply making the playoffs isn't enough.

"I've been there, but the two times I've gone, we haven't done anything," Coakley said. "So, we're not looking ahead."

Despite some offensive struggles this year, the Cowboys could have a few things in common with their best teams of the '90s: a 1,000-yard rusher (Troy Hambrick needs 54 yards against New Orleans), a 3,000-yard passer (Carter eclipsed the mark Sunday) and a defense that allows fewer than 18 points a game (it's yielding 16.5 after Sunday).

But can the Cowboys turn what appeared to be a rebuilding year into something more? Are they laying the foundation for another dynasty?

"I can't predict the future," Woodson said, "but I do know that we'll be ready to play."

SERIES HISTORY: 20th meeting. Cowboys lead the series 14-5. The Saints have won the last two meetings including the last meeting in 1999, 31-24 in New Orleans.

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