SIx weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys were 3-5 and coming off of a disappointing loss on Sunday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons. People were losing hope wondering how a team with so much talent failed to produce points or make the big defensive plays when they counted.
Flash forward to this week and your Cowboys are 8-6, seemingly resurrected from the depths of the mediocrity and in firm control of their playoff fate. It’s an opportunity that few would have believed attainable in week 9 because of how poorly Dallas had been playing. Stupid penalties, defensive breakdowns and untimely interceptions, these sights were a common to those watching on a weekly basis and really solidified most peoples predictions before the season that this was no better than a .500 team. What changed? How has Dallas suddenly won five of their last six games when so many key defensive players have been injured? There may not be one definitive answer, but I can take a stab at what I consider the contributing reason:
Any team in any sport that expects to accomplish its goals every year has to have a positive-thinking locker room and minimizing in-house arguments and unsatisfied players is a must. Dallas never had locker room crisis like the Jets or the Eagles, but you never got the sense that when they would walk out of that tunnel every week, that they were brothers going into battle together.
That obviously changed before the game in Cincinnati two weeks ago.
December 9, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Dallas Cowboys fans hold a sign honoring linebacker Jerry Brown after the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Dallas won the game 20-19. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
The death of Jerry Brown Jr. was something that no teammate was or could have been prepared for, it was a crushing emotional blow to a team already plagued by injuries to the team and could have served as a season-crippling tragedy to teams that were weak, but Dallas was not weak. When they walked out of that tunnel in Cincinnati, you could see it on their faces, they were brothers and they were playing for one of their own who was lost.
As Dan Bailey put the game-winning field goal through the uprights, you could feel that you would no longer see the same mistake-prone Cowboys for the rest of the season and that they would fight to the bitter end no matter the adversity facing them, because that is what teams do. This Sunday was another litmus test, the storied rivalry of Pittsburgh and Dallas was revisited in Cowboys Stadium and thousands of terrible towels waved as if to say “this is our house, your team only plays here.” Dallas could have folded easily like they have at home three times this season, they could have succumbed to the black-and-yellow masses who needed to win just as badly as the Cowboys did, but once again, they fought as a team.
Pittsburgh led 24-17 with just over ten minutes left, Brian Moorman booted a 60-yard punt and Steelers receiver Antonio Brown caught it and sped down the sideline, he found a crease and was set up for a big return that could possibly have put the game out of reach. Then came the play of the year for Dallas, Victor Butler, in an attempt to slow Brown’s momentum, flung out his arm in desperation and it made contact with the ball, jarring it loose and bouncing on the ground; it was quickly recovered by John Phillips of the Cowboys. Dallas went right down the field and tied it up, another testament to how this team has earned their stripes lately. We all know how it ended, with Brandon Carr reading Ben Roethlisberger’s second pass in overtime and diving in front of the receiver to make the interception and return it to the one-yard line. And after this Dan Bailey game-winner, the Cowboys officially controlled their own destiny.
Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey (5) celebrates the winning field goal in overtime with holder Brian Moorman (2) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Now we are in a familiar situation, win the next two games, and Dallas wins the NFC East. Similar to last year, except it was Dallas who blew a two-game lead over the Giants and allowed them to win the division crown in week 17; New York went on to win the Super Bowl. I am not saying the Cowboys are in any way Super Bowl-bound, but I am saying that they have the appearance of a team that is gelling at the right time and figuring out how to make the plays during the clutch moments of games.
There is still a long road to go, New Orleans will have just as many fans screaming “WHO DAT”? this weekend in Dallas even though their playoff hopes are dead and gone and if that game is won and it comes down to week 17 in Washington for the division, expect a focused team who has brought themselves back from another middle-round draft pick and in a position to succeed.
Dallas controls their own destiny these last two weeks of the season, if they can keep showing the fight and focus that has been so evident these past few weeks, they will win the NFC East.
After that, well, you know how hot teams have done in recent history when it comes to the playoffs.
The sky’s the limit.