Cowboys Playoff Push: Reasons For Optimism, But Cardinals Are First Priority

The Cowboys need to handle the Cardinals before thinking about the upcoming Giants game.

After last year's debacle, it's fun to be participating in a playoff push for 2011. The Cowboys sit at 7-4, atop the NFC East, and have their playoff destiny in their own hands. That's a welcome change from last season.

Recall all the way back to Week 8 of this season, Dallas was 3-3 and trying to get on the right side of a .500 record against rival Philadelphia. We were full of hope, until the Eagles blew us out 34-7. At 3-4, we had one last hope - a decidedly soft schedule for five straight weeks. So far, the Cowboys have run the table for four of those weeks, albeit squeaking out a couple of those wins. They've arrived at the fifth and final week of that stretch.

But now, the fun really begins. It's one thing to strive to be in playoff contention, it's another thing to handle the pressure that comes with it. Dallas needs to complete the five-week sweep with a victory of the Arizona Cardinals.

One way to get that win? Don't kick the ball to Patrick Peterson. From an NFL press release:

Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson is the first player in NFL history with four punt-return touchdowns of at least 80 yards in a single season. In fact, only five other players have four 80+ yard PR-TDs in their entire NFL career: Devin Hester &Eric Metcalf (5); Dante Hall, Darrien Gordon & Tamraick Vanover (4).

Yeah, I'll take the out-of-bounds kick this week.

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Last week Cardinals running back Beanie Wells torched the Rams defense for 228 yards rushing. While the Cowboys defense surely took note, Marcus Spears had to put that in some kind of context.

"I heard he ran the ball well," defensive end Marcus Spears said, "but I watched DeMarco [Murray] run for 250-something on that same defense."

Also, for the Cowboys running game, we've talked repeatedly about how important Tony Fiametta is to its success. ESPN Dallas has the numbers:

The Cowboys average 145.8 rushing yards per game and 5.6 per carry when Fiammetta plays, 85.6 yards and 3.2 per carry when he doesn’t.

And it's not just DeMarco Murray taking over at the same time, as the splits for him with and without Fiametta are just as striking:

Murray rushed for 601 yards (8.0 per carry) in four games running behind Fiammetta. Murray gained 160 yards (3.4 per carry) with Fiammetta out the last two games.

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The good news for the Cowboys going forward in their battle with the New York Giants for the NFC East? Strength of schedule.

The New York Giants have the toughest remaining schedule among playoff-contending NFC clubs, facing opponents with a combined 35-20 (.636) mark. The Cowboys remaining SOS is 24-31 (.436).

More good news? The website makenflplayoffs.com calculates the odds of teams making the playoffs by simulating the remaining games thousands and thousands of times. Here's what they say about Dallas.

The Cowboys chances of winning the division: 70%. Chances they get in with a wild-card: 74%

If Dallas goes 5-0 or 4-1, they have a 100% chance of making the playoffs. If they go 3-2 they have a 99% chance. Going 2-3 brings the odds down to 71%. If we collapse to 1-4 or 0-5, the odds are 14% and 0%, respectively.

That's a pretty rosy picture, but let's not get fooled. These Cowboys, while showing definite signs of progress, are by no means a sure thing. This week against Arizona, we'll see if they have the killer-instinct needed for a playoff run.

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A nice stat about Tony Romo from the NFL offices:

The quarterbacks who began career their careers in the Super Bowl era to reach 1,250 completions, 15,000 passing yards and 100 passing touchdowns in the fewest starts:

PLAYER

TEAM

SEASONS

NO. OF STARTS

Aaron Rodgers

Green Bay Packers

2008-2011

58

Tony Romo

Dallas Cowboys

2006-2010

58

Kurt Warner

St. Louis Rams/New York Giants

1999-2004

58

Peyton Manning

Indianapolis Colts

1998-2001

59

Dan Marino

Miami Dolphins

1983-1987

59

Daunte Culpepper

Minnesota Vikings

2000-2004

61

That's not bad company to be keeping.

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Finally, some generic notes on the Cowboys/Cardinals series.

DALLAS COWBOYS (7-4) AT ARIZONA CARDINALS (4-7)

SERIES

COWBOYS

CARDINALS

SERIES LEADER

55-29-1

STREAKS

3 of past 5

Past 2

COACHES VS. OPP.

Garrett: 0-1

Whisenhunt: 2-0

LAST WEEK

W 20-19 vs. Dolphins

W 23-20 at Rams

LAST GAME

12/25/10: Cowboys 26 at Cardinals 27. Trailing 26-24 with 1:41 remaining, Arizona drives 46 yards, capped by K Jay Feely’s game-winning 48-yard FG with 5 seconds remaining.

LAST GAME AT SITE

12/25/10

BROADCAST

FOX (2:15 PM MT): Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale (Field reporter). SIRIUS: 93 (Dal.), 128 (Arz.). XM: 229 (Arz.).

STATS

PASSING

Romo: 245-380-3,026-21-9-97.5 (3C)

Kolb: 129-227-1,706-8-8-77.8 OR

J. Skelton: 59-117-750-4-7-57.3

RUSHING

Murray (R): 147-834-5.7-2

Wells: 181-849-4.7-8

RECEIVING

Witten (TE): 56-713-12.7-5

Fitzgerald: 51-888-17.4-6

OFFENSE

390.1

315.7

TAKE/GIVE

+5

-8

DEFENSE

331.0

373.6

SACKS

Ware: 14 (1L)

Acho (R), Campbell: 5

INTs

Newman: 4 (T3C)

3 tied: 2

PUNTING

McBriar: 46.2

Zastudil: 45.0

KICKING

Bailey (R): 108 (T1L) (27/27 PAT; 27/28 FG)

Feely: 57 (24/24 PAT; 11/16 FG)

NOTES

COWBOYS: Aim for 5th consecutive win…QB TONY ROMO has completed 44 of 67 (65.7 pct.) for 629 yards with 5 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 120.8 rating in 2 starts vs. Arz. Aims for 3rd in row vs. Cards with 300+ yards, 2+ TDs & 100+ rating. In starts with 10+ att. when he has 100+ rating, team is 32-6 (.842). Romo has 21 TD passes & his 4 seasons with 20+ TD passes are tied for most in franchise history (DANNY WHITE)…RB DE MARCO MURRAY leads NFL rookies with 834 rushing yards. Has rushed for 761 yards (126.8 per game) in past 6…TE JASON WITTEN had TD catch in last meeting. Since start of 2007, leads NFL TEs with 421 catches & 4,842 yards. WR LAURENT ROBINSON aims for 6th in row with TD. Has 7 TDs in past 5. Entering 2011, he had 4 career TDs in 4 seasons (2007-10)…LB DE MARCUS WARE has 20 sacks in past 14. Since start of 2006, has 86 sacks, most in NFL. Aims for 4th in row vs. Arz. with sack…K DAN BAILEY has made 26 consecutive FGs, longest streak by rookie…

CARDINALS: QB KEVIN KOLB has 3,788 career passing yards & needs 212 to reach 4,000. QB JOHN SKELTON has won 3 of past 4 starts…RB BEANIE WELLS rushed for franchise-record 228 yards last week. Ties for 4th in NFL with 8 rush TDs. Has 4 rush TDs in past 4 at home…WR LARRY FITZGERALD has 888 rec. yards & needs 112 to reach 1,000 for franchise-record 5th consecutive year. Would be 6th career 1,000-yard season, most ever by Cardinal. WR ANDRE ROBERTS had career-high 110 yards (5 catches, 22 avg.) & career-long 74-yard TD in last meeting…Rookie CB-PR PATRICK PETERSON had 80-yard PR-TD last week & is 1st player in NFL history with 4 80+ yard PR-TDs in season. S ADRIAN WILSON had career-high 3 INTs vs. Dal. (10/20/02). Is 1 of 5 S in NFL history with 20+ sacks (22.5) & 25+ INTs (26). Since start of 2007, DT DARNELL DOCKETT has 29.5 sacks, most by DT (incl. playoffs). Has 3 sacks in past 2 meetings. DE CALAIS CAMPBELL aims for 3rd in row vs. Dal. with sack or FF. LB SAM ACHO had 2 sacks last week & ties for 3rd among NFC rookies with 5.

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