It is all on the line for the Dallas Cowboys. A trip to play the Philadelphia Eagles is next. The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win. The Eagles can’t, but if they win, they just have to beat the New York Giants (again) in the final game of the season to knock Dallas out. This Sunday’s contest has been seen a the likely deciding point for the division since the schedules came out.
Both teams are coming off wins, but very different ones. The Eagles fought a back and forth battle with Washington, not taking the lead for good until there were just 26 seconds left on the clock. The Cowboys had a 21-point lead over the Los Angeles Rams at halftime on the way to their 44-21 win, and were clearly in control for most of the contest.
It’s a lot to think about. Like these things.
I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong about a game
Of all possible outcomes, an absolute domination ending in a three-score margin of victory, and a 30-point lead at one point in the game, was the furthest thing from my mind before the Rams game. I was convinced the team was done for the season, and it was going to take Jason Garrett down as well. I had no faith that they could overcome the litany of self-inflicted wounds that have shown up in the losses this year. Even though a loss against LA would not have doomed Dallas to missing the playoffs, I full expected that if they did get in, it would be with a whimper and not a bang.
I was absolutely wrong, and absolutely thrilled about it. After being so badly outclassed so many times previously, the Cowboys won in all three phases, as well as all three P’s: Preparation, play-calling, and performance. (OK, the last is normally called execution, but I’m trying to come up with a clever way to refer to this idea, so work with me.) In the embarrassing losses the previous two weeks, the team may have done well on the scripted first offensive drives, but outside of that, the team just looked unready and unsure. The plays called were unimaginative on offense and ineffective on defense. Players were missing blocks and tackles. Every indication was that this Dallas team was folding before our eyes.
I cannot remember a turnaround like this by any team. (I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, just that I don’t remember it.) It reinforced the idea that it has not been a lack of talent or ability that has held this edition of the Cowboys back, but mental errors and coaching. If those are indeed fixed and there is no relapse, then this could be a very dangerous team going forward.
Now, don’t overlook the Eagles
Philadelphia has been devastated by injuries. They are down to four wide receivers, and Nelson Agholor is likely to miss the game, meaning they will have to rely largely on two players called up from the practice squad. Tackle Lane Johnson also is not looking good for the game. They have gone to backup running backs. The defense is missing some key bodies as well.
But as much as we might hate to admit it, Carson Wentz is still dangerous. He has largely been hampered by the play of his surrounding cast. If those players can step up, he has a real ability to move the team. The defense has to limit him, and contain their two best remaining weapons, tight end Zach Ertz and running back Mike Sanders.
Offensively, the Cowboys just have to keep things going after the explosion of the Rams game. That is partly on Kellen Moore, whose play-calling was simply brilliant last Sunday. There is one other major factor, as well.
Dak has to be an iron man
The Cowboys are mostly healthy, especially for this deep in the season. But Dak Prescott is dealing with several nagging issues, with the most significant the injury to his shoulder. Against the Rams, it apparently caused him to be off on some throws, but between making some key ones and having an outstanding effort from both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard behind an offensive line that played as well as it has all year, he was more than good enough.
Now he has to play through those dings and not turn the ball over, while the running game needs to have another great effort. If they can, the Cowboys should win, as long as the defense and special teams also avoid breakdowns.
Keep using the full roster
Another heartening development is the increased usage of some depth players. Most notably, Pollard, Blake Jarwin, and Jourdan Lewis all had big games in the Rams win. All are players that many have wanted to see more snaps. Maybe it was the desperation, but it is something that needs to continue for however many more games the Cowboys get to play.
The preference for veterans has been one of the things that Jason Garrett has been criticized for, and that last win supports the contention. Now some of the younger, emerging talent is making big contributions. It is good to see.
The dream is alive
The Cowboys are facing one of the more difficult paths as a potential four seed in the playoffs, which would likely require them to win two on the road to make the ultimate game. But they now have the ability to have that chance. A week ago, I openly stated that I just did not see it happening. Fortunately, I was totally off base.
Jerry Jones, the eternal optimist and salesman, said that he wanted this to be a season that would have specials made about it. Before the Rams game, that looked like one of his unrealistic flights of fancy. It is still a very tall order - but after that stunning performance, it no longer looks completely out of the realm of possibility.
With Christmas now less than a week away, I already have a completely unexpected and satisfying gift. The Cowboys have rekindled my hope after it had completely died. If they take care of business in Philadelphia, it will be a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year for all fans.