Rick Gosselin offers a key factor in the success so far for Dallas, which ties into the tenet of former head coach Jimmy Johnson that avoiding bad plays was more important than making good ones.
I've been charting negative plays league-wide since the 1990s when I spent my time at this newspaper as the NFL columnist. In particular, I've charted the game-changing, momentum-changing plays - fumbles and interception returns for touchdowns, kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns, blocked kicks and special-teams turnovers. The plays that tilt the field and provide the opposition free yards or points. The mistakes. The bad plays. The Sunday afternoon back-breakers.
And there have been mistakes aplenty across the NFL this season. Through 13 weeks this season, there have been 37 defensive touchdowns scored on interceptions and fumble returns and another 19 TDs scored on the various special teams. There have been 31 blocked kicks and 29 fumbles lost on kick returns.
The Carolina Panthers share the NFL lead with eight of those mistake plays. They have had three interceptions returned for touchdowns, a punt returned for another score, two blocked extra points and two turnovers on kick returns. So the Panthers have been busy beating themselves this season, which is why they've done an about-face from their 15-1 NFC championship season in 2015 to this 4-8 nose dive from playoff contention in 2016. The New Orleans Saints also have eight such mistake plays this season, as do the New York Jets. The Saints are non-contenders this season at 5-7, as are the Jets at 3-9. Every team, in fact, has committed those "bad plays" that Johnson so despised.
Every team, that is, except two.
And those two teams happen to be the top seeds in each conference - the 11-1 Cowboys and 10-2 Raiders.
The New York Giants are the only team that has defeated the Cowboys this year. But they are facing a much different team than it was then, and the biggest change may be that Ezekiel Elliott has found his stride.
After averaging 2.6 yards per carry with one touchdown in the opener, Elliott called his NFL debut "average."
"I just wasn't comfortable with the system yet and it showed," he said. "It just took game reps, it took time. And I think now I'm right where I need to be."
Four games into the season, Elliott became the league's rushing leader. He's still in first with 1,199 yards, and his 12 rushing touchdowns have easily surpassed the Cowboys' entire total last year (8).
New York Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. can be both a dangerous weapon and a bit annoying with some of his antics, but it looks like he has a pretty good handle on how the Cowboys have been winning games.
"They're taking seven, eight minutes out of a quarter," he said. "That deflates a team. You're sitting on the sideline biting your fingernails, sitting on the bench with your legs crossed waiting for your opportunity. By the time the offense gets back on the field, you know how this game works. There's going to be some TV timeout, a double-TV timeout. It feels like you've been sitting around for 40 minutes just to go out there.
"At times, we've gone three and out. Then you sit back down and do another seven or eight minutes. When you do get on the field, you have to be productive. You can't just give it back to them because the next thing you know the first quarter is gone. You can't let it be that type of game."
This, of course, is a major development with the Cowboys travelling to New York to play the Giants on Sunday night.
New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is out for six weeks after having surgery to repair a sports hernia. He underwent the procedure Wednesday morning, according to ESPN.
That leaves the Giants without one of their best pass rushers for the rest of the regular season. It leaves open the possibility that they won't have JPP early in the postseason, if they make it that far.
Awww. How sad.
QB Eli Manning: His inconsistent season has seen the veteran struggle getting comfortable in the pocket in recent weeks. The result has been a string of inaccurate throws as the offense struggles. The Giants failed to gain 300 total yards in each of their past two contests, and Manning threw for less than 200 yards in both. He has been releasing the ball quickly to avoid sacks, but it also prevents the Giants from taking the downfield shots they desire. The key is making Manning feel the pressure, even when it's not there. It has happened at times this season. He seemed to be getting better while throwing 12 touchdowns passes in the four games following the bye week, but he has regressed the past two weeks.
Bob Sturm's review of the defense's performance last game gives a little love to veteran leader Sean Lee.
The thing I love about Sean Lee's season is that he has played in 99.9% of snaps after a very strong attendance record in 2015. Now, he plays a collision position so things can change at any point, but the 2015 and 2016 seasons for Lee have been quite productive and he has been on the field throughout both (with the exception of missing the Tampa Bay game last year and being told not to play in Week 17) and should get credit for doing what he has done at a point in his career after he had been called "fragile" for a long time.
Give the man the credit he is due. He has been the defensive MVP for 2 straight seasons in my view. It is one thing to remain healthy and on the field. It is another thing to make plays every week. And yes, he is the only player to log a splash play in every single game this season.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year award is a bit unique, in that it recognizes players who combine great performance on the field with major contributions off it.
Linebacker Sean Lee is the Cowboys' representative nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which recognizes a player for excellence on and off the field.
Each of the 32 NFL teams has a nominee for the annual award. The winner will be announced Feb. 4, the night before Super Bowl LI, in a primetime special on FOX.
The defense played a bigger role in the last win than usual, and the big day from Anthony Hitchens was a part of it.
Hitchens, who started at middle linebacker, was credited with a season-high 13 tackles with one sack, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup. His 13 tackles were tied for the team lead with Barry Church.
"It certainly was a really good game, no question," coach Jason Garrett said. "That's good to see him take advantage of the opportunity. He and Justin had been splitting a lot of snaps over the course of the year and each guy has embraced those roles. But Hitch played more than he had up to this point and just did an outstanding job, was incredibly productive in the run game, tackling the catch, which was such an important thing because they do a good job of getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands and rely on run after the catch. He was involved on a number of hits after the reception ... He was just around the ball. He was very active and made impact plays on the game."
Dallas has been staying relatively healthy, but the injuries they are dealing with have unfortunately been concentrated in a specific and troubling area.
The Cowboy's first official injury report leading up to their Sunday Night game against the New York Giants was released on Wednesday and things are a little worrisome for the time being. Four players did not participate in practice, and three of them are key members of the secondary that will be tested by Odell Beckham, Eli Manning and Sterling Shepard.
CB Morris Claiborne, OT Chaz Green, S JJ Wilcox, and CB Orlando Scandrick all received DNPs.
With the injuries in the secondary, Anthony Brown has been a big factor as a rookie. He is not getting the attention Prescott and Elliott are, but he is an additional reason this is such a strong draft class. Jason Garrett talked about his emergence as a solid defender.
"He's one of those guys that's really improved dramatically in a short period of time in his rookie year," Garrett said Wednesday. "Like a lot of rookies, he was adjusting early, trying to figure out what we were asking him to do, how we wanted him to do it. Probably midway through the preseason it really kind of clicked in for him. He just seemed to gain a better understanding -- it's probably a result of the experience of practice and preseason games. You started to really see his ability, playing with a lot of confidence."
Remember when some called Garrett a puppet for Jerry Jones? You don't hear that any more.
When initially approached about being replaced in the regular defense by rookie Anthony Brown in last Thursday's 17-15 win against the Minnesota Vikings, a perturbed cornerback Orlando Scandrick responded with "ask Jason Garrett." Of course, Garrett had a perfectly logical explanation for his decision, pointing out that Scandrick was dealing with a foot injury and the Cowboys made the decision in the best interest of the team. It was just the latest in a number of unemotional, team-first decisions Garrett has made during the season that has helped propel the Cowboys to an 11-1 mark. They were decisions that could be looked at as controversial and dramatic, but were stripped of the layers by Garrett into what was best for the team.
Jason Garrett has now coached the Cowboys for 100 games, and has more wins than any Dallas coach but Tom Landry. And when it was mentioned to him that he had hit that milestone, his response was typical Garrettspeak.
Garrett was unaware the Cowboys' 17-15 win against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 1 was his 100th game as coach.
"I certainly recognize the privilege I have to have the position I have and that's in the forefront of my mind every day," Garrett said. "But I don't think about those kinds of things, stats, milestones or anything like that."
Former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dave Edwards has died. He was 76. For those who are old enough to remember him (like me), he was one of those solid players who often got overlooked during the original Tom Landry dynasty.