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Holding Serve -- Steady Wins the Cowboys Another Week

Some of the older hands here might recall the paradox of women's tennis in the '70s and '80s. It exploded in popularity, despite having little tactical variance of flair.  Chris Evert's approach defined the game -- stay on the baseline, hit it down the middle and wait for the other player to make mistakes.

The Cowboys played some Chris Evert football today and it couldn't be sexier.  It wasn't Dallas' sharpest game, despite the blowout score.  The Seahawks moved the ball.  They were fairly effective running the ball.  Their defense did not allow the Cowboys' runners to find a rhythm.  A greedy Tony Romo pass attempt gifted Seattle a late score.

Still, the Cowboys kept the ball in the middle.  They held the point at home, on a week where few of their rivals could do the same. The Cardinals found their old inconsistency, falling at home to the Panthers. The Packers dropped a painful rematch to the Vikings.  The Giants gave up another 40 down in Philly.  The 49ers again found a way to play just well enough to lose. 

As a result, the Cowboys find themselves tied for first in the East, and if the Saints can hold their serve against the Falcons in the Superdome tomorrow night, only two conference teams, those Saints and the Vikings, will boast better records than the Cowboys on Tuesday morning.

We can go through the stats, but a quicker way of assessing Dallas' spot on the NFC totem is figuring out which teams are improving right now and which are frantically bailing water.

In Dallas, all the arrows point up. The defense hasn't had a shut down game this season, but its rush and coverage continue to improve.  When Terence Newman records the game's biggest hit and Bobby Carpenter joins Demarcus Ware as a sack leader, you know Wade's guys are headed in the right direction. 

Jason Garrett's bunch is also driving steadily upwards.  Another pick free game by Tony Romo.  The protection was again steady against a blitz-happy opponent. All the backs look as good stoning blitzers as they do carrying the ball. Miles Austin continues to produce.  Martellus Bennett is starting to see more balls.  Doug Free got extensive work today at left tackle, and intrigued with his play.

The largest leap comes on special teams.  David Buehler has perfected the directional kickoff.  Returners either kneel down or take their chances against a coverage group that won't let them past the 20.  In many cases the returners are lucky to reach the fifteen.  The punt coverage units are just as strong.  Twice, I saw Mat McBriar boom a high kick which put four men within five yards of the returner upon reception.  The average Seahawks punt return today was 3.3 yards.  Meanwhile, Patrick Crayton refuses to take off the Devin Hester costume he donned last week.  He returned another punt for a score and just missed a third.  He finished the game with a cool 29.0 yard average.

This matters because the Packers, Dallas' opponent two weeks from today, lost today because of lousy special teams.  Percy Harvin had 175 yards of returns and gave Minnesota two very short fields, which they turned into 14 points.  His 48 yard return one play after the Packers had scored 17 straight to pull within four at 24-20 killed Green Bay's momentum late in the third quarter.  Bruce Read's '08 units probably cost Dallas a playoff spot when they handed the Cardinals 14 points in a mid-season loss.  Joe DeCamillis' bunch hasn't won a game yet, but they look ready to swipe one, if their opponents let them.  Lambeau Field looks like a prime target.

In the division, New York's run defense has collapsed, even though the Giants spend a small fortune signing Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard to beef up their line.  The Eagles, who forgot how to run the ball in their loss to Oakland, averaged 8.3 yards a carry yesterday.  Andy Reid called one of his few 50:50 pass to run games, in part because his fullback Leonard Weaver averaged over nine yards a pop.

Which gets us to the next opponent.  Like the Cowboys, the Eagles have tightened things up since the Raiders embarrassed them.  All three of their units dominated the Giants yesterday.

Don't expect any cautious, baseline play next week.  No returns down the center.  These are the two big-play teams, on offense, defense and special teams.  Miles Austin? Desean Jackson?  Jeremy Maclin? Felix Jones?  These guys always go for aces.

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