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Cowboys hot topic: The value of wins at this point

Even if Dallas wins out, they may still not make the playoffs. Here are the reasons every win still matters.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
In their situation, the Cowboys still want as many of these as they can get.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys didn’t have a perfect weekend of football following their victory over Washington, but it was still pretty good.

For another week, at least, Dallas keeps their faint playoff hopes alive, and because of the other results listed by RJ in his tweet, they actually got a wee bit better. But that is still a steep hill to climb. And now the New York Giants have fired their head coach and general manager and gone back to Eli Manning as the starting quarterback. The division rival is still in disarray, but it could get a real emotional lift from Manning’s return. What had looked like a certain win is now a good deal more in question.

But for the 6-6 Cowboys, every win in the final four games is important, no matter if they reach the playoffs or not.

The goal is to win out, of course, but despite the gratifying rebound last Thursday, there are still questions about their ability to do that. While the defense, special teams, and the running game all were operating at high efficiency, the passing game and Dak Prescott still have not shown any ability to take over and get the job done. As Bob Sturm put it in his weekly Decoding Linehan column:

It all starts with what appears to be a combination of elements that include a quarterback who is not putting the ball where he would like to put it, a wide receiver group that has no real ability to win downfield (aside from red-zone fades to Dez Bryant), pass protection seeing a lot more pressure that forces the ball out quickly and a play-calling staff that is not interested in gambling beyond 5 yards and a cloud of dust up front.

Any loss in the next four games will likely seal Dallas’ fate and shut them out of the postseason. But despite that, any wins they can accumulate can have major impact.

Before discussing that, there is the one negative that must be addressed: Winning will likely make the Cowboys’ draft position worse. However, any form of tanking, no matter how slight, just does not seem to be in Jason Garrett’s DNA, and his approach to things is mirrored by his team. Expect them to take the field in every game the rest of the way looking to come out on top on the scoreboard.

Outside of keeping the playoff drive alive, the biggest reason goes back to Sturm’s point. Prescott needs to regain his accuracy and his confidence, which was clearly shaken through the three-game losing streak that got them to this point. Wins, especially in the two games before Ezekiel Elliott returns from his suspension, would likely be at least partly because accuracy and confidence had improved for Prescott. And if the team shows the same frequently explosive offensive output it used to have once Zeke is back on the field, that would be a huge boost going forward, even without a playoff appearance. Dak is the franchise quarterback, and the team needs him to get back to the swagger he had during his rookie year.

If the team can manage to go 10-6 or even 9-7 to finish the season, it would also get rid of a bugaboo of the Garrett regime. Dallas has never had back-to-back winning seasons under Garrett, and getting there would provide a little confidence in the plan the Cowboys have under him. Of course, clawing back to the postseason would be even bigger, but just staying above .500 for a second season in a row is not insignificant. Winning is just not easy in the parity-driven NFL. It would be more than a minor accomplishment to stack up a couple of winning seasons.

Wins would also likely mean that the defense continues to show some of the strong play that we saw in the last game. The pass rush finally looks to be real, with Demarcus Lawrence once again atop the leaderboard in sacks. David Irving is also continuing his impressive progression, and even Taco Charlton has started to make some contributions. The defense also showed that it can manage to play well without Sean Lee on the field. That cannot be undervalued. Now that Lee is expected to return against the Giants, things should only get better, especially against the run. And it is highly encouraging to see how the secondary performed with the heavy dependence it has on the rookies. Remaking that unit was perhaps the biggest task the team faced for this season. While a rash of injuries slowed that, it now looks to be coming together. Chidobe Awuzie was particularly impressive last week, and any time the defensive backs come away with a couple of picks, it is a big plus. If the secondary continues on its positive trajectory, it bodes very well for the future.

That rebuild in the back of the defense was not the only major task the Cowboys had to accomplish. They also had to replace two offensive linemen. There were struggles and injuries that caused some serious concerns about that, but against Washington, the O line looked like its old self. The running game was especially back on track, with Alfred Morris getting his first 100 yard game since coming to Dallas. Late in the game, with a lead, the Cowboys were once again able to just keep handing the ball off and chew up yardage and clock. This team is designed to get ahead and then pound the opposition into submission, which is exactly what we saw. A couple of more games with that kind of rushing attack and then the final two games with Elliott back could go a long way to making sure that continues.

Wins build confidence for the entire team, and that includes the special teams, which were very, very good against Washington. This season threatened to shake the entire squad. Going out and dominating a team that was also fighting for its playoff chances was a big first step in reestablishing that belief in themselves. More wins, especially if we see some of the same kinds of strong performances and improvement we saw last week, will keep that going.

It would be great to see the Cowboys win out. It would be even better if the Philadelphia Eagles had a late-season meltdown and wound up playing Dallas in the last game of the season for the division crown, but that looks even more unlikely than the Cowboys stringing four more wins together.

For now, though, the dreams are all still alive. And wins can keep them going.

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