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3 & Out: Red Zone, Zeke’s Rest & The Race

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FRISCO, Texas – Here’s all you need to know about December football.

As significant as it was to hold a 10-1 Saints team 27 points below their season average, Sunday’s rematch against the Eagles means more for two reasons:

It’s a division game, and it’s the next game.

The first-place Cowboys (7-5) are well aware of the stakes. That’s where we start this week:

I Know…

beating New Orleans wasn’t viewed as much a statement as just another step. 

There was an interesting vibe when the Cowboys’ locker room opened to the media after that game. Kind of subdued, to be honest.

To a man, unprompted, guys talked about what must be done next instead of what they just did. Some examples:

Ezekiel Elliott: “We’ve got to be better than that. I think we had an opportunity to step on their throats and really win by a lot more, but we didn’t. We let them hang around and we’ve just got to do better finishing these ball games.”

Dak Prescott: “Zeke spoke about it in the locker room (that) it was a great win, but we’ve got a lot more to do and a lot more to get better at. That’s just the mindset and mentality of this team. When you have a young team like that, that always wants to get better, even in wins, we like our chances.”

DeMarcus Lawrence: “That’s why I say the battle is won but the war just begins. The rest of the league is seeing how we’re playing football together and they’re going to want a piece of it. We’ve really just got to stay focused.”

Jaylon Smith: “As well as we played, we have so much that we can grow and learn from.”

That’s not the sound of a satisfied team. That’s a group who felt the sting of 3-5, with everyone counting them out.

Fortunes turn very quickly in this league. Just look at the Washington Redskins’ dive from first place to three straight losses while losing their top two quarterbacks.

The Eagles (6-6) come to AT&T Stadium next, down a game in the division standings despite winning back-to-back games for the first time this season. The Cowboys were in that position four weeks ago at the Linc, where their four-game win streak started. They’ll take nothing for granted.

I Think…

no one benefited more from this mini-bye than Ezekiel Elliott.

Few jobs in this league take a larger physical toll than a featured running back. This season, Elliott has averaged 24.4 touches per game – 240 carries and 53 catches. In the last three games against Atlanta, Washington and New Orleans, he got roughly the same workload –24.7 touches per game (72 carries and 2 catches) – packed into an 11-day stretch.

Plus, there’s this: Elliott ran the ball at least 20 times (23, 26, 23) in three straight games for only the second time this season. Prior to the Thanksgiving stretch, he’d only gotten 20-plus carries in three of the first nine games.

Elliott wants the ball. He knows that in many ways, he’s the engine for this offense. But he also dealt with a little hip soreness last week before the Saints game, according to head coach Jason Garrett.

The Cowboys get back to practice Wednesday, six days after the Saints game. That can only help Zeke.

I Have No Idea…

who would’ve picked the Cowboys to beat New Orleans knowing the offense would convert only 1 of 4 chances inside the 20-yard line.

Actually, the total was 1 of 5, but I’m not counting the victory formation in the final 1:58 after Jourdan Lewis’ interception.

As well as the offense has played during this four-game stretch, the red zone looks like the biggest area for improvement. For the season, the Cowboys rank 26th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 48.7 percent of their trips inside the opponents’ 20. (By comparison, Pittsburgh leads the league at 77.8 percent.) The percentage didn’t improve dramatically during these four straight wins, either (7 of 13, or 53.8 percent).

Going deeper, the Cowboys rank 31st in goal-to-go situations, scoring touchdowns only 52.6 percent of the time. They’re 4 of 9 in the last four games, including a missed opportunity inside the Saints’ 5.

Fans have griped about the play-call choices in some of these spots – specifically, passing instead of handing the ball to Elliott. Devil’s advocate: Noah Brown and Cole Beasley were wide open in the end zone against Washington and Atlanta, respectively, but the passes fell incomplete.

It’s less of an issue when the Dallas defense is playing at an elite level, and the Eagles have had their own problems in the red zone at times, too. They rank 19th (55.8 percent) and were 3 of 5 Monday against Washington, coming up empty twice due to an interception and turnover on downs.

One of many keys to watch in the next biggest game of the season this Sunday.

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