Dallas enters the stretch run with the NFC East there for the taking. Again. Fourth time's a charm….?
It's all so familiar. Cowboys fans have sat tied and blindfolded in darkness for much of the past decade, not knowing when, or how often, a two-by-four to the knees would strike. Football torture can be a cruel, cruel thing.
So forgive our Pavlovian flinch each time someone utters “playoffs” or implications involving January football. Such is the result of the constant hope and disappointment that regurgitated 8-8s brings. Season after season of flawed squads in win-or-go-home finales has calloused and conditioned this fan base to expect the worst. It's just been too long.
(Good gosh what it must be like to be a Guantanamo Eagles fan.)
This certainly isn't the first time Dallas has sat in decent shape heading into Thanksgiving, but it's been an annual striptease that ends in a $300 bar tab. But this go at it should be from 8-3, rather than the 6-4, 5-5, and 6-5 in recent seasons.
Football logic, if there is such a thing, says that this time is different. The group is far more fundamentally sound, balanced, constructed, and focused for a stretch run. It's not all Romo-or-else as it was before, with Murray running wild and a transformed defense that looks the part of a real NFL unit. And health, dare I say it, seems hauntingly on the Cowboys' side.
But…..I don't know. Squeamishness is setting in as we file into the shadows of December, where orcs and gremlins normally ruin the holidays. That damned Pavlov and his wicked ways.
Tony Romo's back has to hold up for Thanksgiving, just a few hours after a Sunday nighter in New York. His health going forward is paramount, as the alternative against Arizona proved beyond doubt. True, the run game and defense make this a much more December-worthy team, and far less codependent on Romo, especially in the cold, wet, and wind that awaits. Winning low-scoring affairs is not laughable anymore because this is thankfully not like recent Dallas teams.
Over there in the far corner sits Philadelphia. The Eagles, too, have their demons to exorcise, despite the national fawning over Chip Kelly and his hocus-pocus offense. One game, they're tearing through opponents like high schoolers, then another, they can't score an offensive touchdown. Their running game is disappointing, as is their red zone offense. Mark Sanchez is apparently the next Joe Montana in this offense by all reports, butt fumble and years of prior failures conveniently pushed aside. They lead the league by a mile with nine defensive/special team scores, which isn't sustainable.
So how will the NFC East end? Here's my week-by-week take.
Week 11: The Packers drop the Eagles to 7-3 this weekend while the Cowboys heal. It's a dead heat with both head-to-head matchups looming soon.
Week 12: A healthy Dallas squad rolls over a Giants team that is giving up massive rushing totals and is basically already in offseason mode. The Eagles pound Tennessee, also done for this season already. Both teams are 8-3 heading into the Thanksgiving showdown.
Week 13: Mark Sanchez is not one for the bright lights of the national stage. His history says so, and Dallas, thanks to an easy win in New York and quick exit for Romo, has a healthy quarterback despite short rest. Nothing is easy about this classic all-timer, but Dallas manages a 27-24 win to take a one game lead in the division.
Week 14: Dallas gets another team that's imploding from within in Chicago the following Thursday. The coach and quarterback are on the hot seat, and Jay Cutler is in full pout mode. Dallas wins to put the pressure on Philadelphia to keep pace, and the Eagles have Seattle coming to town fighting for their own season. This is the critical game for Philadelphia because a loss here is devastating for them. Cowboys fans will be riveted to this game, but will be disappointed as the Eagles get this done at home. Dallas maintains a one-game lead.
Week 15: The rematch at Philly brings a few days extra rest for Dallas, thanks to back-to-back Thursday games, and that could bode well, as could nighttime temperatures that favor the better running team. However, a road gremlin bites Dallas, and they drop a close one to the Eagles, which brings the race back even at 10-4 each. Could have ended this there, but didn't. Ouch.
Week 16: From here, the schedule appears to benefit Philadelphia. However, the Eagles get surprised by a feisty Redskins team that is under pressure by the home fans and owner, and the Eagles drop one unexpectedly to their bitter rival from just down the road. Unfortunately, the Cowboys home woes continue, and they drop a close one to Indianapolis and fail to take advantage again. Both are now 10-5.
Week 17: With the division hanging in the balance, both teams step forward and finish strong. The Eagles beat New York, and Dallas wins in Washington with a much better plan against Jim Haslett's blitz scheme. Dallas and Philadelphia finish with identical 11-5 records.
So now what? This is where it gets really crazy as it takes the fourth tiebreaker to determine a winner.
Dallas and Philly split the head-to-head, both teams finish 4-2 in the division, and both teams are 10-4 against common opponents. Dallas wins the NFC East based on conference record with a one-game advantage (10-4) over Philly (9-5). Both teams are playoff bound, but Dallas doesn't earn a bye.
All that is to say, whether I've pegged it or I've got it all out-of-order, we're all still bound and blindfolded, hoping we don't get another whack across our knees. Let's hope Dr. Pavlov took December off this year.