The Cowboys are down to the final week of the regular season and somehow, they're still in this thing. In fact, they've got a realistic chance to advance to the playoffs.
Here are five key points of emphasis as they head to Sunday's game with the Giants.
Win or go home.
The Cowboys have found a way to make their season finale a "championship" game. That's exactly what Mike McCarthy hoped for when the Cowboys appeared down and out a few weeks ago. The team has reversed course with better play in all three phases and shown the resilience of a champion down the stretch.
While outsiders will snicker at that notion, the Cowboys' ability to keep it together while mired in an extended losing streak shouldn't be dismissed. It is much easier for a team to succumb to finger-pointing, whining, and complaining than holding each other accountable for their mistakes and working on resolving the issues. Although the Cowboys had some missteps in this area along the way, the team has come together and played the brand of football that's needed to excel down the stretch, particularly against top competition.
That said, the Cowboys will need to take it up a notch to claim the division crown. The team will need to play with a greater sense of urgency and everyone will need to exert maximum effort on every play. In addition, every player on the roster must pay attention to the details and prepare for the critical plays that will ultimately decide the outcome on Sunday. From starters to backups to specialists, the Cowboys will need everyone to be prepared and ready to contribute in their respective roles. If the Cowboys bring the energy, effort, focus, and physicality that they've displayed in recent weeks, they will have a chance to enter the tournament and rewrite the narrative on the 2020 season.
Andy Dalton is worth the investment.
The Cowboys' $3 million investment in the three-time Pro Bowler to secure the QB2 role could result in an NFC East title. With some teams electing to go cheap or young at the position, the Cowboys are being rewarded for investing in veteran backup with significant experience and starter-caliber skill.
Since Week 14, Dalton ranks in the top 5 in passer rating, pass yards per attempt and pass touchdowns with the team on a three-game winning streak and averaging 36.0 points per game. With Dalton tossing two-plus passes in each of the wins, the Cowboys' offense has displayed some of the explosiveness that many expected from a lineup that features an electric running back and arguably the best WR corps in football.
Despite playing behind a reshuffled offensive line, the veteran has been efficient from the pocket due to his quick processing skills and pinpoint accuracy. As a master of the quick-rhythm passing game, Dalton has the third-fastest time to throw (2.50 seconds) in the league since Week 11. Although he has always excelled on "catch, rock and throw" concepts, his current rhythm is faster than his 2.52-second average that led the league from 2016-19 with the Bengals.
Part of that success should be attributed to the star-studded cast of playmakers surrounding Dalton on the perimeter. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb are a talented trio of pass-catchers and their individual and collective explosiveness enable Dalton to play "pitch-and-catch" from the pocket.
For instance, Dalton has compiled 214 yards targeting slant routes since Week 11 (third-most in the NFL) with Cooper amassing 152 yards and a score on slant routes (second-most in the NFL; Allen Robinson, 159). Meanwhile, Lamb has been effective as a slot receiver for Dalton, catching 20 of 29 targets for 222 yards and a score from a slot alignment since Week 11.
With Gallup amassing 176 yards and three touchdowns on 13 of 17 targets on isolation routes since Week 11, Dalton has effectively countered the loaded coverage opponents have attempted to utilize to slow down a dangerous aerial attack. Considering the answers that Dalton has provided with his wisdom, experience, and skill, the Cowboys' investment in a quality QB2 looks like money well spent.
The O-Line has figured it out.
Joe Philbin deserves a standing ovation for getting the Cowboys' offensive line to play its best football down the stretch. This unit has been ravaged by injury this season and the constant reshuffling of personnel made it difficult for the unit to develop any chemistry along the frontline. In addition, the lack of experience on the edges posed additional challenges in determining how to best protect the quarterback in pass protection while also designing a running game that suited the runners and blockers.
After studying the offensive line's performance over the past few weeks, the Cowboys' frontline quintet has found their way and they're beginning to control the trenches in every aspect. From moving defenders off the ball in the running game to acting as a fortress in front of Dalton, the combination of Brandon Knight, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and Terence Steele have improved significantly down the stretch. Tyler Biadasz has also contributed as a super-sub asked to come in when an injury forces a short-term reshuffle.
Although this unit certainly pales in comparison to the lineup that was expected to feature Tryon Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin, the steady improvement and overall development of this group is encouraging for 2020 and beyond.
Randy Gregory is a star in the making.
The Cowboys might've discovered the perfect complement to Demarcus Lawrence with the return of Gregory. The long, rangy defender has energized the Cowboys' defense with his non-stop motor and disruptive playmaking skills. Despite playing in a situational role, Gregory has 3.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and 12 QB hits in nine games. He displays outstanding speed, quickness, and range in pursuit, and flashes explosive hand skills as a pass rusher. Most important, he is disruptive and productive at a critical position for the Cowboys.
With that in mind, the decision to sign Gregory to an extension in September could alleviate some of the pressure on the Cowboys to find a pass rusher in the draft. Moreover, the team has an insurance policy in case Aldon Smith departs as a free agent.
Turnovers come in bunches.
Credit Mike Nolan for emphasizing the importance of takeaways to his defenders since Day 1. The veteran defensive coordinator understands the correlation between winning the turnover battle and chalking up W's in the NFL. Look no further than the Cowboys' recent winning streak as proof of Nolan's theory.
The Cowboys have generated 10 takeaways over the past three games and has a plus-nine in the turnover margin during that span. As a result, the Cowboys have outscored their opponents by a 108-57 margin and sparked a three-game winning streak.
Part of the Cowboys' surge in turnovers can be attributed to their increased effort, hustle, and overall awareness. The commitment to running to the ball has enabled the Cowboys to get multiple defenders to the ball to pinball and ricochet runners with tacklers aggressively attacking the ball. In coverage, the Cowboys have more eyes on the quarterback and they're making quicker breaks on throws. With the resurgent pass rush forcing errant throws from passers, the Cowboys' defenders are snagging interceptions on tipped and overthrown balls in their areas.
The Cowboys are on the verge of swiping the division title behind an opportunistic defense that's creating turnovers and playing with a sense of urgency that's improved in recent weeks.