Mike McCarthy couldn’t have asked for a better script. Upon arriving in Dallas, McCarthy has gone about trying to reinvent the Cowboys from the inside out. That hasn’t necessarily meant a rebuild or a total roster overhaul, but the Pittsburgh native and Super Bowl winning head coach saw a need for added toughness in this locker room and had a plan to instill just that.
Predictably, there were some growing pains in 2020, which were not helped in any way by the sudden onset of the pandemic or all of the injuries the team suffered that season. But the Cowboys started to round into form towards the end of that season, winning three of their last four games.
Since then, it’s been nothing but regular-season success. McCarthy has now posted three straight 12-win seasons, three straight playoff berths, and two division titles. That’s a level of consistency this franchise hasn’t seen since the glory days of the 90’s. Over these last three seasons, McCarthy has also produced a team that wins at home (21-4 in AT&T Stadium, including 8-0 this year), wins their division games (15-3 against the NFC East), and responds well after a loss (outscoring opponents 392-176).
Each season, those defining traits have become even more pronounced, which is why the 2023 Cowboys seemed to have their playoff hopes hinging on their ability to win the division and secure at least one playoff game at home. A couple of weeks ago, it seemed like that would be impossible. However, a meltdown from the Eagles gave McCarthy’s team a golden opportunity: beat the Commanders on the road and clinch both the division and the second seed in the NFC.
That’s exactly the kind of high stakes, prove-what-you’re-made-of scenario that McCarthy has built this team for, which is why it was so encouraging to see the Cowboys blow out the Commanders on Sunday. Things started out a little shaky, but they also weren’t playing in perfect conditions. FedEx Field is known for its poor playing surface and the winds were blowing harder than normal.
On top of it all, the Cowboys were without their two starting guards. Tyler Smith had been an expected absence all week, but Zack Martin’s inactive status (with an illness) took everyone by surprise. The last time the Cowboys had to start two backups on the offensive line, they lost to one of the worst teams in the league on the road. No such mistakes were made this time, and the Cowboys didn’t even let things get close. They more or less had this one wrapped up by halftime, and Dak Prescott had another great game.
Now, they head into the postseason, and the path forward has never been more clear for McCarthy’s Cowboys. Whether or not McCarthy’s job actually relies on how the team performs in the playoffs this year, there is a clear sense of urgency to capitalize on a strong season in a wide-open conference. Failing to at least reach the NFC championship game would be a disappointment.
That genuinely seems to be in reach, though. First things first, the Cowboys have to beat the Packers. Narratively speaking, that’s a great opportunity to slay two dragons: 1) the Cowboys have experienced plenty of heartbreak at the hands of the cheeseheads, and 2) McCarthy would relish the chance to beat the team in the playoffs that fired him, no matter how much he insists it’s just another game.
Narratives aside, though, the Cowboys project favorably against a Packers team that snuck into the playoffs at 9-8 and features the youngest average age roster. In fact, they’re favored by 7.5 points, the second largest point spread in the Wild Card round. If they can take care of business against Green Bay in the same way they’ve taken care of every team they’ve hosted in this stadium this year, Dallas will be one more home game away from reaching that elusive conference title game.
The Cowboys just went out and proved they could step up in a win-or-go-home type situation. Now, it becomes a bit more real, and their hard work all year has set the team up in great position to make a playoff run. McCarthy has taken care to wire these players for moments like this. And, for what feels like the first time in ages, there’s legitimate optimism that they’ll answer the call.