The push to 12 wins for the Dallas Cowboys starts Thursday at Soldier Field against a 5-7 Chicago Bears team that embarrassed the ‘Boys 45-28 a December ago. That game was also in prime time, on a Monday night. That game also opened the Cowboys’ December schedule. That game was the first loss of what would become a 1-3 December and yet another ignominious 8-8 finish.
This Cowboys team is coming off a humiliating Thanksgiving defeat in a battle for first place against a fierce division rival. They’re in the midst of a five-game stretch in which they can’t convert a third down on offense and can’t force a punt on defense. They’re 2-3 during that stretch and after a 6-1 start look like about the shakiest 8-4 team east of Arizona.
And this team is going to win 11 games this year. Maybe 12. Three reasons why:
This offense has elite talent, and they’re all healthy. By NFL standards, anyway.
The Cowboys are nicked up like any other NFL team in December, but the foundation of the offense is ready to play. Offensive line, quarterback, running back, tight end, No. 1 receiver. All solidly healthy. All capable of elite-level play.
Quarterback Tony Romo is the fourth-highest rated passer in the league in December games over the past five seasons, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. Tight end Jason Witten blocks like a tackle in the running game and abuses linebackers in the passing game. Running back DeMarco Murray is the league’s leading rusher. Wide receiver Dez Bryant can burn you on the outside and make the tough catches across the middle.
The key this year is all play behind what is widely regarded as the most dominant offensive line in the league. This offense was built with December in mind. With three cold-weather road games on the slate this year, we’re going to see it win.
The defense is the best of the Jason Garrett Era.
That’s not to say it’s terrific, but it doesn’t have to be. Not with an offense that can control the ball the way this one can. This defense merely needs to contribute a few stops and the odd timely turnover, and the offense can do the rest.
Also, though the stats don’t show it yet, the defense is getting better. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Tyrone Crawford are becoming the types of players offenses have to plan for. So much so that the Cowboys are trying to find ways to get them both on the field at the same time, shifting Melton over to defensive end in some packages.
A resurgent Rolando McClain leads the defense at middle linebacker, a considerable upgrade from a December ago. Nothing against Ernie Sims. And youngsters such as safety J.J. Wilcox, in just his third season playing the position, and rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens seem to improve with each game they play.
This defense isn’t likely to win any games for the Cowboys, but they won’t lose games either. Last year at Soldier Field, the defense did not force a single punt. Against career journeyman quarterback Josh McCown. Yeah, that really happened. Not happening this year.
Finally, these Cowboys are due for a few December breaks.
In every season, injuries and turnovers have their say in making and breaking fortunes. These Cowboys are 8-4, and yet they’re -3 overall in turnover margin. The Cowboys are ranked 30th in the league in fumbles lost per game. That doesn’t mean they’re really bad at the loose ball drill; that means the ball isn’t bouncing their way.
Consider wide receiver Cole Beasley’s fumble last week against the Eagles. Racing toward the sideline, he gets stripped just a moment before careening out of bounds. Beasley and the defender who stripped him both ended up out of bounds. In fact, the momentum of every element involved in that play was literally hurtling out of bounds. Except the ball. Instead it fell feather-soft to the turf and inexplicably stuck there for an Eagle defender to scoop up. That’s just luck. Eventually luck shifts, and the Cowboys are due.
The Cowboys have been slaughtered by attrition in December during Garrett’s tenure, particularly on defense. Guys like linebacker Cameron Lawrence and safety Jeff Heath, both core special teamers, have played entirely too many meaningful December snaps. The pendulum is due to swing back on that, too. It’s overdue.
If they can stay relatively healthy, particularly in a few key positions that lack depth, they can run the table. They can beat a 5-7 Bears team in Chicago. They can win for the third straight year at Philadelphia, where the Eagles will be coming off what is sure to be a very physical matchup against the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. They can beat an Indianapolis team with a defense ranked 30th in the league in rushing yards per attempt. And they can close out the season with sweet, sweet revenge against a hapless Washington Redskins team at RFK.
FedEx Field? It’ll always be RFK to me. A satisfying place for the Cowboys to clinch. Bring on December – these Cowboys are ready for it.