“Focus on the things you can control.”
It’s one of the more common phrases of coachspeak, right up there with “next man up.” But just as the Cowboys have embodied the next man up philosophy for most of this year, so too did they focus just on the things they controlled.
We’ve talked several times this season about the Cowboys’ oscillating odds at securing the top seed in the NFC, and thereby earning the sole first-round bye in the playoffs while clinching home field advantage. But after losses to the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders those odds had cratered a bit. A lot of things would need to go Dallas’ way to make up ground in the race for the one seed.
In the meantime, Mike McCarthy’s team had to just focus on the things it controlled. Mission accomplished.
McCarthy’s team shrugged off its first losing streak of the year to beat the Saints in the Superdome. They followed it up with a win over Washington that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. And on Sunday, they made it three straight wins with a strong 21-6 win over the Giants. Suddenly, the 7-4 Cowboys that were in a tailspin sat at 10-4.
Then the rest of the day happened, and things got even sweeter.
The Lions, led by former Cowboy and Aggie man himself Dan Campbell, upset the Cardinals. Not only did they upset them, they dominated them. The Lions defense held Kyler Murray scoreless in the first half and consistently flustered the quarterback en route to a 30-12 final score. It was a shock to see the team with the worst record in the NFL beat the team with the best record in the NFL. That alone moved the Cowboys up to the three seed.
Then came Sunday Night Football, as the Buccaneers hosted the Saints. The same Saints team Dallas beat by a touchdown before getting criticized for an ugly win. A Saints team that had scored just one win in their six games since losing starting quarterback Jameis Winston for the year. Coincidentally, Winston’s last start came in a 36-27 win over these same Buccaneers.
New Orleans was also playing without head coach Sean Payton, who had tested positive for COVID-19, leaving them in a similar situation to the one Dallas found themselves in when they beat this Saints team. And interim head coach/defensive coordinator Dennis Allen became the star of the show as his defense shut out Tom Brady at home for the first time since 2006. For perspective, the last time that happened Dak Prescott wasn’t even old enough to drive a car.
So the Cardinals and Buccaneers both fell on Sunday, pushing the Cowboys up to a tentative two seed based on a couple of tiebreakers that go their way in the event of a three-way tie between Dallas, Arizona, and Tampa Bay. Of course, the Cowboys host the Cardinals in two weeks, and the Buccaneers got the crushing news on Monday that receiver Chris Godwin is done for the year. That sets up a few more opportunities for McCarthy’s team to create some space between them and the other two.
Now, they set their sights on the top seed, currently occupied by McCarthy’s former employers. The Packers were one two-point conversion away from losing to the Tyler Huntley-led Ravens on Sunday, which would have catapulted Dallas all the way to the top. Instead, they’ll need Green Bay to lose one of their final three games (vs Cleveland, vs Minnesota, at Detroit).
McCarthy knows that his team hasn’t gotten to this point by worrying about those things, though. His Pittsburgh-inspired, workmanlike approach to football has shown up at several points throughout this season for Dallas, and it’s permeated the way these Cowboys play. They took a few hits on the chin in November, but have responded with three straight wins over teams they were supposed to beat.
Next up, they stay home to take on the Washington Football Team, who will be coming off a game just five days prior and having a very unclear picture of which players will be off the COVID-19 list in time. Then it’s the Cardinals coming to town for the last regular-season home game before traveling to Philadelphia to close out the season.
McCarthy’s ability to get his players prepared for each game and take things one game at a time has already paid dividends this year. As time starts to tick away in the race for the first round bye, it will be a true test of his ability to continue that trend and take care of business. In the meantime, go Browns/Vikings/Lions!