By David Moore

Tribune News Service

LANDOVER, Md. -- A season that began with more doubts than promise continues to surprise.

An owner who checked his famous optimism at the door four short months ago now draws parallels between this team and those that collected Lombardi trophies back in the 1990s.

Jerry Jones no longer wonders about the future of coach Jason Garrett, the health of quarterback Tony Romo, the durability of DeMarco Murray or the viability of a defense that has no marquee names. What he knows is the Cowboys now face the Detroit Lions on Sunday at AT&T Stadium as the longest playoff drought of his ownership comes to an end.

What he embraces is how this team steamrolls into the wild-card game. For only the third time in the last 19 seasons the Cowboys finish the final month of the calendar year with a winning record. Sunday afternoon's win over Washington means the Cowboys went 4-0 in December while outscoring opponents 165-79.

The foundation has been laid. The arrow, as Jones likes to say, is pointing up as this team enters the playoffs as the NFC East champion with a 12-4 record.

No team in the National Football Conference has a better record. Dallas finishes as the No. 3 seed due to a series of tiebreakers.

"Our team is as ready to do that as any team frankly that I've been associated with,'' Jones said of carrying momentum into the postseason. "It's got different nuances that some Cowboy teams I was with in the early '90s, but still this team has some uniqueness to it that could serve us well in the playoffs.''

The Cowboys last appeared in a playoff game in January of 2010.

Time moves quickly in the NFL. Only six players remain from that team. One of them, tight end Jason Witten, said the postseason absence "feels like about 50 years,'' after last week's victory over Indianapolis to secure the berth.

"We've done the division title thing,'' Romo said Sunday. "Any time you can get 12 wins it's hard in the National Football League. We're proud of that.

"At the same time we understand we're just getting started and we're excited about the opportunity in front of us.''

The season got underway on Sept. 7 with a head coach in the final year of his contract coming off three consecutive 8-8 seasons. Garrett has taken himself off the hot seat to mount a serious campaign for Coach of the Year.

Romo could barely walk when he left FedEx Field last December. His season would come to an end five days later when he underwent a microdiscectomy on his lumbar spine.

The 34-year-old quarterback was unable to practice more than two consecutive days in training camp. He has been held out of Wednesday practice since Week Three of the regular season.

Yet last week he passed Troy Aikman to become the most prolific quarterback in franchise history. He conceded Sunday that he's played "my best football this season.''

Murray never made it through an entire season before this one. But he played last week only six days removed from surgery to repair a broken hand. He rushed for 100 yards against Washington to finish as the league's leading rusher with 1,845 yards and break Emmitt Smith's franchise record for a single-season.

"I couldn't be happier for him,'' said Smith, who had 1,773 rushing yards during the '95 season. "He is very deserving of this recognition. This is something that I know DeMarco will share with the whole team, because he knows that they all had a hand in his success.

"I am proud of him because I know how hard it is to do what he did this year. I am also proud because I've watched him bounce back from some injury setbacks in his first few years. He's a worked through all that, and he deserves to have this record.

"I want him and the whole team to keep up this level of play and carry it into the playoffs.''

A defense that sunk to historic depths in '13 came into this season without Pro Bowl fixture DeMarcus Ware, who was released for salary cap reasons. The club let defensive end Jason Hatcher walk and lost linebacker Sean Lee, its most productive returning player on that side of the ball, with an injury on the first practice of the off-season.

On Sunday this unsung group forced four turnovers against Washington, giving it 13 in December alone.

"This team has got a lot of pride,'' Jones said. "To me, everything about today says this is the character of the team. It starts with Jason Garrett, building it, but then he's got it and he's passing it along to the players.

"We're playing well at the right time.''

An owner who told coaches, players and fans during the annual Kickoff Luncheon on Aug. 27 that this group faced an "uphill battle'' is once again confident.

And the Cowboys are once again in the playoffs.