The Cowboys sprinted through the finish line of their long-established goal of winning the NFC East division yesterday by destroying a playoff team at home, in December, with the stakes as high as this team has dealt with in years.
Time will only tell, but one thing is now more than certain: This Dallas Cowboys team may wear the same uniforms, play in the same stadium, and answer to the same name as previous Cowboys teams, but - they are different from what America has become accustomed to from Dallas. This team is, in fact, different.
They are different because they are a team that is no longer being punished physically at this crucial time of year. For years, when the showdowns of December and January would arrive, the Cowboys did not have enough strength to win in the trenches and certainly did not have enough depth to stand tall if somebody was injured. Some years, it only took a single injury to knock the train off its track, because depth never presented players capable of maintaining its level of play. But, in 2014, they are healthier, but those that replace an injured Cowboy seem to generally have the ability to perform and often you don't even notice the change.
They are different because they are resilient. There is no question past editions of this franchise would not respond when they were punched in the mouth. This team was humbled severely on Thanksgiving Day as the Eagles strolled into Arlington and by the end of the day were having a laugh at the way they demolished their rival. The Cowboys lost the game in front of the football world by a massive margin that could have been much, much worse. They were dominated and left for dead that day, as the team in the mix for the playoffs that would most likely be on the outside looking in when it came time to handout post-season invitations. But, this team has not stepped off the gas since. They had 7 days to wallow in their mess after that day and to perform the ultimate gut check. That was their fork in the road, where it could have gone in one of two distinct directions after that day. And, that is where the Cowboys demonstrated their grit, resolve, and intestinal fortitude, because since then, they have been a freight train that has outscored, out-gained, and destroyed 3 opponents in a row - all of which were thought of as playoff teams when this season began.
The Cowboys have won every game since Thanksgiving, posting a 3-0 record with a cumulative score of 121-62 and racking up a time of possession death-grip on the game and the clock of each of these contests to the tune of 36:37 to 23:23. That means that the opponent is barely allowed to step on the field before Dallas grabs the game by the throat and administers massive body blows to any defense in their path. The running game has continued to hit all of the notes, bashing its way for 145 yards a game, while Romo and the passing attack has converted 17 3rd Downs into 1st, and making all of the throws when needed. The turnover game in these 3 games? 8-2. Dallas has been a +6 in just 3 games.
And most of all, they are different because they are just flat-out better. It would frustrate the fan base to admit it at the time, but the facts seem pretty clear now. This isn't a team that elected to play the style they played, with finesse styles of offense and defense when you hoped you could ride a throwing hot streak to a victory over a playoff bully. They played that style because it was their best chance to win during the first several years of the Jason Garrett coaching stint. But, during that time, often right under our noses, they were assembling big men who could win street fights against the bullies of this league. They stopped investing in 200-pounders, and started buying in bulk the 300-pound variety. The front office started to realize that if you go cheap in the trenches, it will end up with Tony Romo on his back and a running game that doesn't want to bother to run anymore. People sometimes confuse this issue by saying the coaching staff finally committed to the run and ask "why didn't they do that more in 2011 or 2012?" They didn't because they knew they were taking a knife to a gun-fight. But, now? They are fully armed with the best weapons in just about every duel they find themselves in. That is why they are a legitimate January threat. We saw it in Seattle in October, and now we see that they are capable of doing that to most not their schedule. It is repeatable. It is sustainable. It is ground and pound, power football with the ability to throw off play-action and run looks with precision and devastation. It is a championship offense.
And we saw it again against the Colts. Before we read too much into the game, we must recognize that the Colts did not see this game as a vital showdown that was going to determine their fate. Indianapolis examined what they had at stake, who they had banged up, and wisely exercised caution by holding out threat T.Y. Hilton and seemed to just want to get Sunday over with. That isn't some excuse for the awful showing they had, but it is something we should understand about the rout that ensued. The Cowboys took a willing opponent and placed them in a sleeper hold from the opening kickoff. It certainly helped that when Dallas' opening drive stalled, the Colts were there to assist with a taunting personal foul, followed by a botched fake punt, and more dropped passes than you could hope for, but Dallas was not going to be denied on this day.
Dallas did on the first drive what they had done so often in Philadelphia the week before; put together one of those drives they are becoming known for. This time it was 15 plays and rolled up 7 1st down conversions and devoured 8:24 off the clock. Last week, in the game's 2nd drive, it was 16 plays, 7 1st downs gained, and 8:16 off the clock. These show-of-might drives demoralize the opponent. They are not "quick strike" with a huge play that will lead the highlight shows. Instead, they are methodical marches, where it is often 5-yard gains repeated over and over again until the defense is standing in their own end zone. It isn't to say the Cowboys offense cannot be stopped, but when you are witnessing these drives, it does appear rather obvious that they are not easily slowed down.
If the Cowboys offense is championship caliber, what about the defense? Yesterday, they continued a stretch of football where they look aggressive and ready to attack on 3rd Down. We know the key to the defense is to keep them from being over-exposed and to limit the amount of time they spend on the field. That means the offense has to hold the ball, but the defense also has to use those 3rd Down situations to make a stop and get off the field. Against the Colts, the Cowboys defense stopped 4 of the first 5 Colts 3rd Down attempts and mixed in a JJ Wilcox interception to put the game out of reach at 28-0 at the half. This dependent defense is what it is, but when it is attached at the hip to the way the offense can run games, you can see how it can function and stay in games.
Honestly, it is difficult to fully evaluate that win on Sunday as the swarm of momentum destroyed a Colts team that did not look particularly ready to play. Dewey McDonald dropped one of the easier passes on that fake punt you have ever seen, Dwayne Allen dropped several passes for being a well-respected tight end threat, and Jerrell Freeman insisted on giving Lance Dunbar a piece of his mind (and in doing so giving the Cowboys a fresh set of downs). The Colts were a disaster and won't play a worse game all year. But, that is why I am focusing on the bigger picture this morning of examining the Cowboys' state of the union as it sits at Christmas.
The Cowboys have pulled something off here that seemed impossible. The most optimistic few in August might throw out 9 or 10 wins as the ceiling for this team, and now the Cowboys have even blown by those projections. If they wish, a 12-win season awaits on Sunday, but a wise organization understands that the outcome of Sunday's regular season finale in Washington is just an obstacle in the path of a team that has now raised its sights appropriately to January.
In a way, you are tempted to be really happy for Tony Romo, Jason Garrett, and the crew of guys who represent this franchise that has evolved into a national punch-line for the last decade or so of disappointments. But, in another way, you want to encourage them (even if it is just in your head) not to be happy or satisfied and to keep going and not to consider this as any sort of destination on the trip to a dream that exceeds the confines of your imagination.
This organization, and by extension, this fan base seems to have had their ability to "dare to dream" snuffed out over the past generation of mediocrity. The losses, the humiliations, and the jokes had added up to a sum total that had rendered most hopeless. Someday this organization might turn around, you would hear, but it likely won't be in the lifetimes of those who made this mess.
But, now, look at them. It doesn't matter what anyone thought could happen in August, (despite saying this several times, I feel obligated to own my 6-10 prediction in Oxnard, yet again), the facts now are clear:
- This team is the NFC East Division Champion and no other member of that division will play beyond next week.
- This team is healthy and confident heading into the post-season.
- This team has demonstrated that they can compete with and, on its day, defeat the very best teams this league has to offer both at home and on the road.
- This team has a sustainable and repeatable offensive attack that does not require sleight of hand or absurd individual performances.
I realize it is difficult to pretend that history began in September in 2014, because it certainly did not. Our sense of history works against us in two different ways in Dallas because it reminds us that the only thing that truly gets everyone worked into a frenzy is winning Super Bowls, but also reminds us that this current group is not worth considering that high bar because of their failures each and every year of their careers.
But, if you could just look at this Dallas Cowboys team based on information gained in 2014 alone, it might not be that difficult to imagine a scenario where they are playing in Seattle in a 1-game, winner-goes-to-the-Super Bowl contest. The perfect symmetry of Tony Romo having one chance to cement his career credentials by winning in the same place where his reputation suffered in 2006 would be too much for the networks to handle. And what then? What would this Cowboys group do in a 1-game situation where all they have to do is win in Seattle (again) to go to the Super Bowl?
I know, I know, we are really jumping the gun here. They have a long ways to go before you can even ponder that possibility. But, that is the point. It is now a possibility. They have demonstrated in 2014 that past versions of this franchise (good and bad) do not matter. Only this group matters for these playoffs.
And they are in. So, treat yourself, because this team has a chance to make some real noise.
Go ahead, dare to dream.