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Cowboys are peaking at the perfect time

The Cowboys are finding their form at a great time.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys
A solid day from Tony Pollard is a less noticed but possibly important development.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It is getting a bit tiresome to hear the weekly pushback about how the Dallas Cowboys have just been beating up on some pretty bad teams and have not been able to win a single game against anyone with a winning record. Somehow blowing NFL squads away, particularly when they are playing at home, doesn’t mean anything in the eyes of multiple critics. Of course, Dallas does not get to pick who they play, or when. The vagaries of the scheduling process means that the Cowboys have only played two winning teams in their first eleven games. Both of those were losses. Things certainly are going to get more challenging now, with five consecutive games against teams above .500 before the season finale at the Washington Commanders, who were their latest domination. Three of those opponents are division leaders, and the other two are second in their divisions.

Let’s look at things a bit differently. Before the season even started, most saw that December was going to be the toughest month for the Cowboys. That has held up, with the Seattle Seahawks on the last day of November now part of the gauntlet Dallas has to get through to make the playoffs and hope they get some help in trying to overtake the Philadelphia Eagles, the first of those December challenges. They do get to play three of those five tough opponents in AT&T Stadium, where they sport a thirteen-game winning streak. They have just finished the softest part of their schedule, facing teams with a combined 8-25 record since dropping a close one at Philadelphia. The numbers in that three-game stretch are pretty impressive no matter who they played as they ran up a cumulative score of 127-37 while accumulating a host of big stats. While the bulk of the week twelve games remain to be played, Dallas has the biggest points differential in the NFL at the moment, +162.

Even with the low quality of the competition lately, the Cowboys are clearly playing their best football of the season. The first five games were very uneven. They had three big wins and two frankly embarrassing losses to the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. But that loss to San Francisco marked a turning point. Since then, the offense has not only been humming, it has just gotten stronger. Dak Prescott is the key figure in that, but there are a lot of other components. The receiving corps has gone from the CeeDee Lamb show to a trio of highly potent targets for the quarterback in Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Jake Ferguson. Jalen Tolbert may have overtaken Michael Gallup as WR3, KaVontae Turpin can make big plays in his limited snaps, and rookies Jalen Brooks and Luke Schoonmaker are starting to make contributions as well. Tony Pollard is also in the mix out of the backfield.

The past five games have seen Prescott complete passes to at least eight different receivers, hitting ten on Thanksgiving against Washington. It is becoming increasingly difficult to stop the aerial onslaught. And Prescott has been getting really good protection, often having as much time as he wants to survey the field and find his target.

The rushing attack has been more uneven, but in the Commanders game there were signs Pollard is starting to produce. He had 79 yards and a touchdown, and the past two weeks have seen the offensive line that has been taking such good care of their quarterback doing some serious road grading for him and Rico Dowdle. If they are getting some complementary play from the two phases of the offense, they are just going to be more dangerous.

The defense has been just as formidable. The pass rush continues to bedevil quarterbacks with sacks and pressures, and it isn’t just coming from Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and the other edge rushers. Pressure is also coming up the middle, with Johnathan Hankins getting to Sam Howell twice in the most recent victory. Osa Odighizuwa is a constant threat, and even rookie Mazi Smith got some pressure on Thursday. There are times the Cowboys seem vulnerable to the run, but it is not as marked as it was at times last season. With Leighton Vander Esch out, Damone Clark and Markquese Bell have stepped up and do a solid job patrolling the middle of the defense.

And when opposing quarterbacks do throw the ball, they do so at their own risk. As you might have heard, DaRon Bland has already gone on an historic tear, setting the all time record for pick sixes in a season as well as leading the NFL in interceptions this year. His remarkable feats have overshadowed the job Stephon Gilmore is doing on the other side, which may have something to do with why QBs keep putting the ball at risk just by throwing in the general direction of Bland, who uses his remarkable closing speed to overcome his less sticky coverage.

Across the board, Dallas is playing its best football of the season. Additionally, since Vander Esch’s injury, they have avoided the more important players losing significant time at a point in the season when so many other franchises are seeing key members of their team go down. (Feel free to practice any superstitious rituals at this point to ward off the curse of the football gods.) If they had scripted all this out, the timing could not be better. No matter the competition, the Cowboys have elevated their play. This is the best version of the team so far this year, playing with energy and determination.

Of course, the question of whether this is going to be enough remains. Making it to the playoffs seems all but a done deal, as two more wins in the last six games should lock up at least a wild card spot. But they want more than that. Obviously they would love to overtake the Eagles for the NFC East title and a shot at the number one seed. Going on the road in the playoffs is not desirable, unless they are really improved and can carry the energy to away games. Even if they don’t get the necessary help to overtake Philadelphia, they want to make sure they lock up the number five seed, because that will almost certainly lead to a game against the winner in the NFC South, where the New Orleans Saints currently sit on top with a 5-5 record (at the time this is written.) In any case, they don’t want to limp into the playoffs with three or four losses the rest of the way. There is a chance for Mike McCarthy to lead the team to at least twelve wins for the third year in a row, and that would help have them ready for the postseason.

We still need to see how well Dallas can maintain their level of play, including in the remaining three road games. If they can play in those the way they have been at AT&T Stadium while not losing that home field edge, the possibilities are wide open. Based on the past three games, that is not too much to hope for.

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