When was the last time you were ready to abandon all hope for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys? After they went 3-5 in the first half of the season? After the umpteenth starter went on IR? After the Thanksgiving loss to the Washington Redskins? Maybe it was just a week ago, when the team was down by two with time running out in Cincinnati? Or maybe it was during the fourth quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, during a dazzling punt return by Antonio Brown with the Cowboys down by seven - just before Victor Butler knocked the ball loose.
That is how close to a loss this game was. One crucial fumble at just the right time. That was the biggest play, but it was hardly the only one. There were the back-to-back sacks of Ben Roethlisberger on the last possession the Steelers could realistically try to score to avoid overtime. And of course, the monumentally, big-contract-justifying interception by Brandon Carr to set up Dan Bailey, who just keeps splittin' em to win games.
Despite that, it was really a game where Dallas proved itself to be the superior team. Just look at this stat line: Sacks/QB hits by Cowboys: 4/8. Sacks/QB hits by Steelers: 1/2. Tony Romo was provided with truly effective protection by his offensive line. Yes, that's right, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line had a very good, even excellent, game, rotating right tackles and all. Take away a few penalties (one of only a couple of negatives from the game), and they were almost superb. Against, as we were reminded numerous times in the week before the game, the number one defense in the NFL.
All season long, there have been some who argue that the Cowboys could get hot at the end of the season and make a run for the playoffs. Most of us (including me) really thought that was not truly possible. The injuries kept piling up, particularly right up the middle of the defense. Jason Garrett made poor play calls and just was not looking like real head coach material. The team would come out flat, or fall apart, and often come heartbreakingly short in a valiant but doomed comeback. Tony Romo and his receiving corps just could not get in synch. There was no running game at all. When the team was good, it could not be consistent. Above all, there was no toughness to this team, and no real leadership. (OK, some of that comes from the media, but I'm building dramatic tension here, so bear with me.)
The 3-5 start supported all that. The last six games have made every one of those statements a lie.
The team is 5-1 in the second half of the season. Against the Steelers, the Cowboys led for far more of the game than they trailed. The play calling looked pretty good, especially down on the two-yard line when Garrett kept calling the opposite of what the Steelers were lined up for. Romo is suddenly red hot, and in case you haven't noticed, he completed passes to nine different receivers, almost all of whom were catching most everything thrown at them (Dez Bryant did seem to have some difficulties, but still caught another touchdown). Dallas has won three in a row. All in December. They are guaranteed to have a winning record for the month. And Jason Garrett is guaranteed to have a winning record for his career at the end of this season. Somehow, some way, Rob Ryan has managed to patch and improvise with this motley crew of defenders, many recently signed street free agents, and keep the team close enough to win.
And right now, the Dallas Cowboys are arguably the toughest, most resilient team in the NFL. After the Jerry Brown and Josh Brent tragedy, their true nature has been laid bare, and it is not one of entitlement and softness. It is gutsy, gritty, every man fighting to the best of his ability to make this team a winner. From Tony Romo leading the team down the field, to Dez Bryant refusing surgery to try and help on the playoff run, to Anthony Spencer proving he may be the defensive MVP for Dallas, this team has plenty of that type that Jason Garrett prizes, the Right Kind of Guy. And you don't suddenly discover all that in one week, no matter how trying it is. When you get hit by something like this team faced a little over a week ago, you show your true colors, what you really are underneath all the outside perceptions.
What is emerging is a legitimate NFL playoff contender. I could not imagine myself saying that a few weeks ago, even if the Cowboys managed to sneak in. But watching them outplay the Steelers through most of the game, and overcoming their mistakes when they made them, I realized that this team is now probably one of the ten or twelve best in the league. And they look to be getting better. As much as it stuns me to say it, this is exactly how those hated New York Giants won that Lombardi Trophy last year. It is happening right in front of us.
There are an amazing number of playoff permutations still, but this is fact: Dallas wins the last two games of the season, and they win the NFC East. It was always mathematically possible, but up until right now, I thought it highly improbable. Now, it is simple truth. The two games will be tough, and the focus has to be on beating the dangerous New Orleans Saints next. But for the first time, I think it could happen.
And suddenly, I am doing something I thought I had put aside for this confusing and confounding season. I was certain, just a few short weeks ago, that there was no way I could do this again this year. But I see the team playing like this. I see the confidence, the crucial plays at the right moment, eleven men putting out maximum effort play after play. I see, and I realize it is time.
You want some of my Kool Aid?