Despite sucking for the majority of the last two decades, the Dallas Cowboys are still one of the most widely-beloved (read: bandwagony) teams in American professional sports. I don’t at all understand why this is, but whaddya gonna do. While it’s probably a little harsh to say they’ve “sucked”, one playoff win since winning the Super Bowl in 1995 is prettay, prettay pathetic. As a fan of the other team in Texas, I can gladly say that I’ve enjoyed much of the schadenfreude.
But I’m not here to rain on any parades. I’m here to make a case for the Cowboys to make it into the NFC playoffs this season. While it appeared a longshot coming into the season that they’d do much of anything of substance this year, there may actually be reason for optimism. Let’s explore:
1. They’ve finally stopped abandoning the run
Nobody has ever doubted DeMarco Murray’s talent. When healthy, he’s shown that he can be one of the NFL’s most dangerous backs. Unfortunately, that “when healthy” qualifier comes in to play far too often with him. Since being drafted in 2011, he’s never played more than 14 games in any season. It seems inevitable that he’ll miss a handful of games here-or-there on an annual basis with some nagging injury. It’s a shame.
So far this season, though, it can be easily argued that no runner in the league has been better than Murray. The former Sooner has carried it 75 times already through just 3 games, and he leads the league with 385 yards. That’s a whopping 70 more than the league’s second-leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell. He’s scored 3 touchdowns, but he’s also lost a fumble in every game, too. Fortunately, Jason Garrett and the rest of the coaching staff have stuck with him rather than banishing him to the bench to think about what he’s done.
On Sunday in St. Louis, the Cowboys fell into a 21-point hole against the Rams extremely early. Nothing was going right. Tony Romo had thrown a pick-six and the defense looked incapable of stopping an offense led by something called Austin Davis. In previous years, when faced with this kind of deficit, Dallas would abandon the run altogether and run every play out of the shotgun with five-wide. Invariably, they’d struggle to come back and make these games close. However, this time around, they didn’t abandon their gameplan prematurely, and it got them back into the game. Credit new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for this. Rather than throwing the playbook into a fireplace, the Cowboys patiently ran the ball with Murray down the Rams’ throats and wound up scoring a touchdown late in the second quarter to draw within 21-7.
The Cowboys wound up completing the comeback and beat the Rams 34-31. Remarkably, Romo threw just 23 passes for the entire game. Normally when you see a team overcome a monster deficit, their quarterback has to throw like 50 times. Dallas didn’t forget what they do best, which is run the ball with their hoss of a back behind a revamped offensive line, and the Rams couldn’t do anything to stop it. This is a kind of mentality that we haven’t seen from the Cowboys since Garrett became the full-time head coach.
2. The NFC East is pretty weak
The Eagles are 3-0, yet they’ve had to come back from double-digit deficits in all three of those games thus far. The Redskins look like a different animal with Kirk Cousins at the helm, but they’re still 1-2. The Giants looked like a dumpster fire up until their win over Houston last week.
I do think the Eagles are the best team in this division by a pretty wide margin, but they do have weaknesses that can clearly be exploited. They’ve been a sieve defensively so far and I can’t imagine that getting much better. Hell, Cary Williams is bitching about practice time and they’ve only played 3 games. They could have a mutiny or something.
I think Washington has the makings of a dangerous team, and who knows what to expect from Cousins. He’s looked like a world-beater through two games, but we probably shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that those games came against the NFL’s very worst team (the freaking Jaguars) and the aforementioned crappy Eagles defense. Let’s see him do this against a real defense before we hand him the keys to the franchise. Sound good?
The Giants aren’t a viable contender so I’m not even going to bother addressing them further. They suck.
The case can be made that the Cowboys will finish second in this division behind Philly. There are a ton of factors here, the most important of which is obviously the health of Tony Romo. As long as he’s able to stay on the field and remain decently productive, the Cowboys will have a chance. The offense is going to be what carries them, considering the defense is still subpar. In order to make the playoffs, the Cowboys may need to go 3-1 against the Redskins and Giants, which is far from an impossible task. It’s tough to win two games against a division rival, but the Cowboys did go 5-1 against their NFC East sisterwives a season ago.
3. Who else is going to make it?
Not only is the NFC East weak, but the NFC in general isn’t looking as strong as it has in the last few years. The Packers, Saints and 49ers, who have been playoff stalwarts recently, are all off to sluggish 1-2 starts. Do we really trust the Falcons, Panthers, Lions or Cardinals enough to keep up their hot starts? The Falcons’ defense looks shaky. The Panthers were absolutely embarrassed at home by an average Steelers team on Sunday night. The Lions are the most two-faced, inconsistent team in the league. The Cardinals have health problems, though they’ve weathered that storm just fine to this point.
I don’t think the Cowboys are as talented overall as any of those teams listed above, but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s crucial for them to absolutely win the games on their schedule that they “should” win. Unfortunately, there aren’t really a whole lot of those. After the Saints this week, a few of the rest of their non-divisional foes coming up are Houston, Seattle, Arizona, Chicago and Indianapolis. Yikes. Essentially, those three home games (Houston, Arizona, Indy) are must-wins. Say they go 3-3 in those games, 3-1 against WAS/NY and split with Philly. That gets the Cowboys to 9-7 on the year. Good enough to make the NFC playoffs? The Cardinals won 10 a year ago and didn’t qualify. It may not be good enough once again this year, but it’s probably their best-case scenario if they’re going to be playing beyond the regular season.