FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott started shaking his head before the question was over.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback knew where this was going. And he wasn’t buying it.
Coach Mike McCarthy for his work in Monday night’s wildcard game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
“It’s comical, in a way,” Prescott said Friday afternoon. “12 straight wins (seasons) in you tell me how long, and we’re talking about a guy’s job in jeopardy? It just shows you, when you play for that organization, what comes with it.
“That’s why it’s important to create these walls around us. Create that safe place in our locker room. What matters is the men who come out and get between the lines and work through the week for us to come out and win.
The Cowboys will try Monday in Tampa to achieve feats that have eluded the franchise. Dallas hasn’t won a road playoff game in 30 years, or advanced to a conference championship game (let alone a Super Bowl) in 27. Against Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, Cowboys history continues to loom large: Brady has faced the Cowboys seven times in his career. He won all seven.
McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, was hired by Dallas three years ago to change that.
Nonetheless, he sought to minimize outside distractions this week, reminding the Cowboys both that they face the entire Buccaneers team and that they are responsible for what they do during their tenure – not ghosts of the franchise of decades past.
To further underscore how far removed the Cowboys are from the futility they are being asked to answer to, McCarthy polled his team this week. How many players were still alive on January 17, 1993 when the Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers for their last road playoff victory? Eleven active players were. Ten baby photos submitted for McCarthy’s presentation.
“We had 10 players’ baby photos and birth dates and obviously recognized him,” McCarthy said. “And the reality is that we have no responsibility for what happened here in the past, until the San Francisco game.
“It’s about our opportunity. It’s about what’s in front of us.
Several Cowboys players have acknowledged this week: Playoffs like this will define their legacy. All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said “that’s where legends are made.” Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb said “stars are born in the playoffs,” the true mark of players how they “perform in the playoffs.”
The players referenced a new burst of energy around meetings and the locker room, high anticipation for a game in which they are 2.5-point favorites but also face a seven-time Super Bowl champion known for his comebacks and his elevation in the playoffs.
“You have to love playing in those times,” Prescott said. “If you don’t, this league, this sport, it’s not the place for you. So for me, it’s about embracing the moment. Stay in me. Now is not the time to do something new, to create something new.
“Trust my teammates, trust the way I prepared throughout, and go out there and stay in the moment.”
Expect Prescott to lean on his confidence to use his legs to extend plays, while Lamb’s playoff mantras include keeping a cool head even if the Bucs revert to their oft-used strategy of doubling down a No. 1 receiver. Lamb will remember: the more defenders who peddle me, the more my teammates will face one-on-one matchups.
Inside defensive linemen will aim to disrupt Brady’s pocket ahead of his quick 2.45-second release time, while secondary members will strive to overcommunicate, fearing Brady is looking to confuse their playing diagnoses .
Every player will strive to avoid the fate they suffered last year: a wildcard upset and an early exit from home. Emotions are fresh, this 12-month disappointment is “what we’ve built our team on this year,” said defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
“You have to use that as energy, juice before these playoffs,” Lawrence said. “I am not getting any younger. It’s time.”
But as the Cowboys ponder their playoff goals and opportunities to shape their legacy, the players insist they aren’t focused on the implications of this game for McCarthy.
He guided the Cowboys’ most successful two-season regular-season streak since the 1994-95 seasons. Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones insists McCarthy has more than just playoff success to judge his third-year head coach on.
Outside conversation will swirl. If the Cowboys lose alarmingly to the Buccaneers, Jones’ emotions will likely fuel further speculation. But Cowboys players won’t be listening. The responsibility to win, they say, lies with them.
“We as players love Mike,” Lamb said. “We love playing for him and everything he’s done to put us in the best position to win. You can see it in the way we’ve played, and like you said, 12-5 in consecutive years .
“I feel like the only way to really pay it back is to keep winning throughout the season. And let the rest take care of itself.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein