FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott started shaking his head before the question was complete.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback knew where this was going. And he wasn’t buying it.
Mike McCarthy, coaching for his job in Monday night’s wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
“It’s comical, in a sense,” Prescott said Friday afternoon. “Back-to-back 12-win (seasons) in y’all tell me how long, and we’re talking about a guy’s job in jeopardy? That just shows you, when you play for this organization, what comes with it.
“That’s why it’s important to create these walls around us. Create this safe place in our locker room. What matters is the men that go out there and get in between the lines and put the work in throughout the week for us to go out and win.”
The Cowboys will attempt Monday in Tampa to achieve feats that have eluded the franchise. Dallas hasn’t won a road playoff game in 30 years, nor advanced to a conference championship game (much less a Super Bowl) in 27. Against Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, the Cowboys’ history continues to loom large: Brady has faced the Cowboys seven times in his career. He has won all seven.
McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl as Green Bay Packers head coach, was hired by Dallas three years ago to change this.
Nonetheless, he has sought to downplay outside distractions this week, reminding the Cowboys both that they’re playing the entire Buccaneers team and that they are accountable for what they do in their tenure — not for the franchise ghosts of decades past.
To further underscore how far removed the Cowboys are from the futility they’re being asked to answer for, McCarthy surveyed his team this week. How many players were even alive on Jan. 17, 1993 when the Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers for their last road postseason win? Eleven active players were. Ten submitted baby pictures for McCarthy’s presentation.
“We had the baby pictures of 10 players and the dates that they were born and obviously acknowledged that,” McCarthy said. “And the reality of it is we have zero responsibility for what’s happened here in the past, all the way back even to the San Francisco game.
“This is about our opportunity. It’s about what’s in front of us.”
Several Cowboys players acknowledged this week: Playoff runs like this one will define their legacies. All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said “this is where legends are made.” Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb chimed in that “stars are born in playoffs,” the true mark of players how they “perform in elimination rounds.”
Players referenced a new burst of energy around meetings and locker rooms, anticipating high for a game in which they’re 2.5-point favorites but also facing a seven-time Super Bowl champion known for comebacks and playoff elevation.
“You’ve got to love playing in these moments,” Prescott said. “If you don’t, this league, this sports, this isn’t the place for you. So for me, it’s about embracing the moment. Staying within myself. It’s not time to do anything new, create anything new.
“Trust my teammates, trust the way I’ve prepared throughout, and go out there and stay within the moment.”
Expect Prescott leaning into his trust to feature using his legs to extend plays, while Lamb’s playoff mantras include staying level-headed even if the Bucs revert to their often-used strategy of double-covering a No. 1 receiver. Lamb will remind himself: The more defenders hawking to me, the more my teammates will face one-on-one matchups.
Interior defensive linemen will aim to disrupt Brady’s pocket before his quick 2.45-second release time, while secondary members will strive to communicate excessively, wary that Brady will aim to confuse their play diagnoses.
Each player will work toward avoiding the fate they suffered last year: a wild-card upset and an early exit home. The emotions are fresh, that 12-months-removed disappointment is “what we built our team off this year,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said.
“You’ve got to use that as energy, juice heading into these playoffs,” Lawrence said. “I ain’t getting no younger. This is the time.”
But as the Cowboys consider their postseason goals and the opportunities to shape their legacies, players insist they aren’t focused on this game’s implications for McCarthy.
He’s guided the Cowboys’ most successful two-year regular-season stretch since the 1994-1995 seasons. Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones insists McCarthy has more than just playoff success on which to judge his third-year head coach.
The outside talk will swirl. If the Cowboys lose in alarming fashion to the Buccaneers, Jones’ emotions will likely fuel speculation further. But Cowboys players will not be tuning in. The responsibility to win, they believe, lie on them.
“Us as players, we love Mike,” Lamb said. “We love playing for him and everything he’s done for us to put us in the best position to win. You can see it in the way we play, and as you said, 12-5 in back to back years.
“I feel like the only way we can really repay him is continuing to win out throughout the season. And let the rest take care of itself.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein