3 & Out

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3 & Out: A Playoff Run Hinges On These Essentials

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with _three quick topics _as the Cowboys (11-5) look to finish the regular season strong in Philadelphia on Saturday night:

  • Identity
  • MG
  • The NFC

I Know…

this sounds strange to say after a loss, but the Cowboys' identity became even clearer against the Arizona Cardinals.

Win or lose, this is a complementary football team reliant on matching contributions from the offense, defense and special teams. During the first seven games of the season, when Dallas was shredding defenses at a 34.2-points-per-game clip, this looked like an offense-first group.

Down the stretch, as opponents have adjusted and the offense's production has dipped, it's clear how much the defense's takeaways mean to the team's overall success.

The defense had chances last Sunday (including an apparent forced fumble in the final two minutes and change that wasn't called or reviewed) but didn't get a takeaway for only the fourth game this season. The Cowboys' record in those four games is 1-3: losses to the Cardinals, Raiders and Broncos, and a razor-thin victory over the Vikings on Halloween without Dak Prescott in the lineup.

No team has scored more than the Cowboys' 479 points. Nearly a quarter of those points (112) has come from 33 forced turnovers, tied for first in the league.

On special teams, Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger and the coverage unit has been a major factor in tilting field position.

This is actually the right recipe to win in the playoffs. As head coach Mike McCarthy said after the Washington game, "

I've been No. 1 in the league in offense and that doesn't guarantee you a championship. And when your team is lopsided that way, it's a lot harder on the defense and the special teams. I think you're seeing a team that's more balanced, it's more complementary, and has the ability to win the game in all three phases. And that's what we want to be."

To make a run, it goes without saying that the Cowboys can't miss makeable field goals or go deep into the third quarter of a playoff game with only seven points on the board, as was the case against Arizona. Takeaways leading to extra possessions help but are not a weekly guarantee. The offense and special teams are capable of more.

"I know the team we have, what we've got. Just simply didn't get it done as a team, starting with myself," Prescott said. "(I've) got to be better. All of us, we've got to look at ourselves in the mirror and find a way to come out with a win in a game like this."

I Think…

all you need to know about Michael Gallup is what happened during, and after, his second-quarter touchdown catch against the Cardinals.

Gallup has always been arguably the Cowboys' best contested-ball catcher. That play was another example. But the most unfortunate part about it – his left knee buckling as he elevated in the end zone – was also the most impressive.

"He said he felt it pop before he caught the ball, and he's tough enough to go up and still make the play and he knew he was hurt," Amari Cooper said. "It speaks to how tough MG is and how much of a baller he is."

Afterward, the FOX cameras showed Gallup talking with Cowboys associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown on the way the locker room. (Undoubtedly words of encouragement from Brown, one of the best in the business.) Gallup had a smile on his face, even though he probably knew then that the injury could be season-ending (indeed, a torn ACL).

That's why teammates love Michael Gallup. Always positive. His attitude has been a big boost to team chemistry the past four years.

I Have No Idea…

what to expect from the NFC playoffs.

This is as talented an NFC field as we've seen since the '90s, yet most teams at the top have question marks. Like Dallas, the Rams' offensive numbers have dropped despite a five-game winning streak. The Bucs were already depleted at key spots before apparently parting ways with Antonio Brown. Arizona found a way to beat the Cowboys, but they're still dealing with injuries, too.

Only the top-seeded Packers seem to be sitting pretty right now, but two of their last three wins were by two points or less. Still, a playoff road through Lambeau Field is always challenging because of the elements and some guy named Rodgers.

As NFC East champions, the Cowboys have earned the luxury of playing the first round at AT&T Stadium. If they're fortunate enough to advance past a TBD opponent, current seeding would send them to Green Bay. The temperature there, as I write, is 32 degrees.

We've covered takeaways and field goals in this space. Add the run game to that. The Cowboys had a season-low 45 rushing yards against Arizona, and 20 came from Prescott scrambles. To win in the playoffs, especially in crappy weather, it'll take better production there.

"It has to be," McCarthy said. "We understand what the run game means, not only to our offense but to our whole football team. You run the football for your whole football team."

McCarthy is referencing time of possession, which Arizona won by almost 10 minutes. Control the pace, provide balance and play-action chances for Prescott, take the pressure off your defense, etc. All important.

And all possible for the Cowboys to achieve, despite the sting from Sunday's defeat.

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