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The Cowboys are a mirror image of themselves at the start of the season

Be patient and hope for the best, because there is no ready answer for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team
Dak Prescott is the issue now.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Things seem unsettled and confused for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. They just got a vital division win on the road over the Washington Football Team, who appear to be the biggest threat to snatch the NFC East crown from them. They have a three-game lead in the division with only four games to play, and get a rematch with all of the other teams in the NFCE. Oh, and they already have a win over all of them. But one of the most discussed topics is the disarray of the Dallas offense. It could be challenging for the Cowboys to do anything in the playoffs with how that has been going. The game on Sunday could easily have turned into another depressing loss if not for the other big topic about the team: The rise to dominance by the defense.

We have watched this year’s edition of the Cowboys completely reverse its identity. To start the season, they had a red-hot offense that just needed mediocre play from the defense to get a win. Now, we have a take-no-prisoners-but-take-the-ball defense that just needs some minimal competence from the offense to get a victory.

It’s not exactly a mystery what has happened. For the offense, it can be stated simply, although the underlying causes are much less clear, and the solution very elusive. Dak Prescott is just struggling. Other injuries and the issues keeping a consistent offensive line on the field also play a role, but those are not nearly as influential as the inaccuracy and poor decisions that plague Prescott now. Against the Football Team, he had an anemic stat line: 22 completions on 39 attempts for just 211 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. The second one turned what was at the time an easy game into one that was a bit too close for comfort.

This is an example of what has gone wrong for Prescott. Recently, he is just does not seeing the field and his reads well, and is badly off with some of his throws. It is a complete reversal of the way he was playing to start the season.

While here we are scratching our heads about just what is wrong with him, there is a pretty clear moment when things changed. It was the calf injury he suffered on the last play of the win over the New England Patriots. That is looking like the best win of the season, as the Patriots are making a claim to being the best team in the AFC and possibly the league. But since that time, Prescott has seldom shown the level of play that led the team to the six-game winning streak early in the season. It is certainly reasonable to believe that is still bothering him. His footwork continues to be off on many throws, and those usually do not go well.

The Cowboys look certain to make the playoffs. They have a chance of locking up a spot with a win over the New York Giants this week. They also are an overwhelming favorite to win the division and get at least a home game to open the postseason. That may be very important, because there is also some evidence that Prescott just plays better indoors and in warm weather. But advancing further than the first round is going to depend on him getting out of his slump.

Will he? There is evidence the answer is yes - at some point. Once before, he went into a really bad stretch of games. That started with the infamous burning in Atlanta, the 2017 game in week 10 in which he was sacked by the Atlanta Falcons eight times. It took until several games into 2018 before he got over that debacle. Obviously, Dallas cannot afford for him to take as long this time if they hope to advance far.

This is where the difficulty for fans enters. We can see that things are wrong for him. Diagnosing the causes is possible, but there is no ready solution. That is all about him. He has proven his mental toughness over time. Unfortunately, he is also subject to periods, sometimes prolonged, when he has to get back to being the player he can be. All we can do is wait and see what he and the coaching staff can do about it. There are times when Kellen Moore does not seem to be doing much to help him with the play-calling. The running game issues are also doing him no favors. It was hoped that having his wide receivers healthy would snap things back, but so far that has not happened. Now we can only wait and watch, and hope something will carry him and the team through.

Fortunately, that something is both clear and getting the job done. The Dallas defense was a monster against Washington. Leading the way is consensus DROY and emerging DPOY candidate Micah Parsons. He added two more sacks to his total, one of which led to a fumble return for a touchdown by Dorance Armstrong, and threatens to set a new rookie record. What continues to amaze is that he is one of the top ten in the league in sacks while spending much of each game playing a more traditional linebacker role, where he also is simply outstanding.

He still has four games to play, so look for him to increase his totals.

And as we have hoped for all season, the reinforcements have arrived, and it is glorious. DeMarcus Lawrence was playing in his second game back from IR, and notched a sack of his own. Neville Gallimore saw his first action of the season, and also got to the quarterback. Randy Gregory also was back for the first time. All he did was intercept a pass and force a fumble on a sack to effectively end the game.

It is not just the pass rush that is peaking at just the right time. The secondary was stout. Trevon Diggs did get beaten for a touchdown on a play where his coverage was as tight as it could be, but he completely shut down Terry McLaurin, Washington’s best receiver. Even Leighton Vander Esch, widely criticized this season, played much better, contributing three sure tackles and a pass breakup.

The formula for success at the beginning of the season was for the offense to lead the way while the defense had to do just enough to slow the opponent. Now, it is for the defense to put the clamps on the other team while the offense generates just enough points to get the win.

It is not ideal to have to depend on one phase of the team to carry the other. If both can play at or near their potential, this team can beat anyone in the league. The onus is now on the offense to correct things like the persistent frustrations in the red zone. That will largely depend on Prescott getting out of his funk. They have a couple of games coming up when they should be able to win while working to correct the flaws. How well they do, especially Prescott, will determine the way this season ends.