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What They Did on Their Mid-Season Vacation

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I've seen a lot of midseason speculation on how the second half will progress, and I find it amusing that so many pundits simply double the current records to predict where the season will finish. One I heard simply took every division leader and proclaimed them the winners of their respective divisions.

It raises another question, namely, what type of Cowboys team will we see in the second half? Will it be one that continues its erratic play? Or will the youngsters mature and give this promising team some homestretch momentum?

A lot will depend on how the bye week was utilized. Some teams use it as an opportunity to get healthy before resuming the grind. Other teams see it as the last training camp, where weaknesses can be patched and mistakes ironed out.

The three division rivals offer examples of both approaches. The Giants, for example, had a leaky defense that had given up an average of 24.5 points in the team's first four games. The bye permitted the Giants to beef up their rush. They lost their post-bye opener to the Cowboys, but pressured Drew Bledsoe and his mates into four turnovers. The points-allowed average has dropped to 14 in the last month and the Giants are now 6-2.

Washington entered the bye after it's late win over Dallas. The Skins weakness was its offensive line, which had let Mark Brunell get battered. Joe Gibbs used the off week to tighten up his protection. Washington has been much better at guarding Brunell and is in the playoff pack at 5-3.

The Eagles, on the other hand, left their meltdown in Dallas with a sketchy secondary and a non-existent running game. You might have expected Andy Reid to work on his rush attack in the week off, but the Eagles throw just as much as they did before. Their secondary is also having just as much trouble stopping good air attacks. They've won just once since the bye.

In Dallas, the greatest weakness has been on the offensive line, which has not produced a respectable rushing average. Nor has it protected Bledsoe of late; he's on pace to be sacked 40 times. I expect to see the same committment to running the ball Dallas showed before the bye, but I also expect to see a more effective ground game.

The bye also gives the offensive staff more time to blend young tackles Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti into the lineup. The bye came at an ideal time for Petitti. If you count the preseason games, where Petitti got extensive play in order to season him, he's played twelve consecutive weeks. That's on par with a college season. Rookies often hit the wall at this point, as their bodies and their minds begin to fade. Petitti should show improvement on the mental mistakes that dogged him in the Seattle loss.

The schedule gets tougher for the Cowboys, who face five opponents with winning records and seven that are currently .500 or better. If the coaches follow the Giants' and Redskins' lead, they're a good bet to make the playoffs. If they go the Eagles route, this rookie-laden team is in for more hard lessons.