It is still highly improbable that the Dallas Cowboys are going to find a way to get back into the playoffs, just as it has been for weeks. While they have won two of their last three games and, more significantly, now have a win without Tony Romo taking the field, they are still trying to climb out of a deeper hole than any team has ever overcome in the history of the NFL. However, no team trying to manage that has likely had as bad a division as their competition. It is that collective NFC East ineptitude that has kept the faint, faint playoff hopes flickering despite all the hardship.
Clearly they have to do better than they did against Washington to win against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and they have a short week while the Pack has an extra three days due to playing last Thursday. But it is clear that the team has not given up, as Stephen Jones observed in a radio interview.
While the last victory was marred by many flaws, there were also several things that the team can try to build on. Here are some potential keys to trying to have only their second winning streak of this long and painful season.
The defense may be playing better than it has all season. Dallas held Washington to only 266 yards for the game, including only 73 on the ground. Although they started to give up some drives as the game wore on and Washington adjusted for the increased use of the blitz, the only drive that they looked really bad on was the quick touchdown they gave up at the end. Otherwise, they either got off the field or held Washington to field goal attempts. The pass rush finally was effective. It was a little disappointing that they got no more sacks after the first quarter, but there were passes that Kirk Cousins missed due to pressure throughout the game. DeMarcus Lawrence is finally living up to what the team wanted from him when they traded up to draft him in 2014. And Sean Lee is really balling. If he can stay healthy, the defense should be able to keep the team in contention in all the remaining games.
They still need to find a way to get takeaways. It is highly doubtful that the team is going to get a timely gift such as the one when DeSean Jackson was overcome by the Christmas spirit and presented them with the ball on the Washington 15 yard line inside the final two minutes of the game. This is a source of huge frustration for the defense, and there is no sure solution for it. We can all only hope that the law of averages will finally catch up and some fumbles and interceptions will finally go the Cowboys' way.
Lucky Whitehead is a late bloomer. He had two very good punt returns called back due to foolish penalties early, then had the most important return of his brief career to set the team up for the winning field goal. The growing confidence he has returning kicks and punts was very good to see. And he was the best weapon they had in the ground game. Scott Linehan needs to keep those jet sweeps as part of the repertoire. Even if he is not getting the big gains he did on Monday, those keep the defense honest.
They need to keep trying to establish the run. Fumbles are always a disaster, but the second one by Darren McFadden, when he was stunned enough by the hit to require administration of the concussion protocol to check him out, killed the running game when it was just starting to build some momentum. He had three consecutive carries for seven yards each. Had he hung onto the ball on the third one, it might have changed the whole complexion of the offense. Hopefully his two fumbles were an aberration that will not be repeated. They also need to come up with a better answer in short yardage situations. Washington was bringing defenders from the edge to as well as getting far too much penetration up the middle. The offensive line has to do much better in those situations.
Matt Cassel has to keep improving. Cassel was a big part of the problem offensively, but he was making some better throws as the game went along. He is still limited in his ability to read the defense and deliver the ball. Linehan has to do a better job working with the limitations he has as a passer. The one big takeaway from the game is that the team now knows they can win with him at quarterback. That could be a huge boost in confidence. Intangibles like that can be big. If he can continue to improve over the final four regular season games, that almost impossible run at the postseason may actually have a small chance of happening.
Dan Bailey may be the real MVP for Dallas. With the continuing struggles to score touchdowns, the team may have to call on the best field goal kicker in the league again to win games. Bailey has been superb this year and is worth every penny of his contract - and probably much more.
The Cowboys need to build on all these things to keep their hopes alive. It will be a major challenge, but on Monday they were able to handle things, at least for one game. Now they need to repeat it. Green Bay is not going to be an easy game, but the Packers are not without their own issues. Dallas has to take it one game at a time and see where they can go in this strange year in the NFC East.