The Cowboys are not out of this thing, despite the 2-7 record.
With seven games to go, here are some key aspects I wanted to focus on down the stretch for the Cowboys.
And it starts with believing there is a chance to make the playoffs.
Winning the division is a realistic goal.
Despite sitting at 2-7 at the break, the Cowboys are in a great position to win the NFC East. The face one team with a winning record down the stretch. Moreover, they have an opportunity to control their destiny due to rematches against each of their division rivals
That's why the Cowboys should have a little pep in their step when they return to the practice field this week. They have a chance to reverse their fortune this season by knocking out a seven-game schedule littered with winnable games. The task won't be easy but it is certainly achievable if the Cowboys continue to play with the effort, energy, and discipline that they've exhibited over the past two games.
In addition, the Cowboys will go on a winning streak if Mike McCarthy can get his coaches and team to embrace playing "complementary" football. When the Cowboys operate with the offense playing in a way the supports and protects the defense, and the special teams complement both units, the team can win against contenders and pretenders.
Stopping the run is key to the Cowboys going on a run.
If the Cowboys are going to make a run at the postseason, they will need to do it by shutting down some of the top rushing attacks in the league. The Cowboys will face three of the top 10 rushing attacks and five squads that rank among the top half of the league in rush yards per game. Given the unit's early-season struggles against the run, it is on Mike Nolan and Co. to find a way to neutralize the ground and pound teams on the schedule to spark a playoff run.
Nolan has seemingly found the right recipe to help the defense play at a high level. He has infused the rotation with more "energy" players (see Neville Gallimore, Randy Gregory and Donovan Wilson) to increase the urgency, physicality and toughness displayed from the defense. The unit is playing harder and exhibiting better discipline on the field, and the production has improved as a result.
Against the smash-mouth teams remaining on the schedule, the Cowboys must ratchet up their physicality while maintaining their discipline at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line and linebackers must work together to build a wall without the cracks or creases that enable runners to reach the second level. If the Cowboys consistently build the wall over the next seven games, this squad will have a chance to waltz into the postseason.
Andy Dalton doesn't need to be a superhero.
The veteran quarterback is slated to return to the starting lineup against the Vikings but he needs to avoid playing "hero" ball for the Cowboys to get back on track. Despite the temptation to put the offense on his shoulders as an experienced starter with * career starts on his resume, the Cowboys need him to own his role as a game manager to win down the stretch. Dalton needs to make sure the Cowboys are in the correct play on "check with me" calls and ensure the offensive line understands the pass protection checks at the line.
As a passer, Dalton needs to concentrate on stringing together completions by taking the easy read and completing the routine throw instead of pushing the envelope as a playmaker. The Cowboys have enough playmakers on the perimeter to overwhelm opponents with an efficient passing game but the veteran needs to put the ball in their hands and let them go to work. If Dalton can get the ball to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb in space, the Cowboys' explosive WR corps will create enough big plays to sustain drives and score points.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore can help Dalton resist the temptation to throw on his cape by utilizing a more conservative game plan. The second-year play-caller dialed it back a bit with Garrett Gilbert on the field with solid results. He should continue to adhere to that blueprint with the veteran returning to action as the Cowboys' QB1.
Feature Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as a tandem.
The Cowboys have a dangerous 1-2 punch at running back with Pollard emerging as a nice complement to Elliott in the backfield. The second-year pro is coming off of a strong performance against the Steelers that showcased his explosiveness as a change of pace back. With Pollard also flashing soft hands and solid receiving skills, the Cowboys have a chance to take advantage of his unique skills to add a dimension to the offensive game plan. If Moore and McCarthy can implement a plan to get him 10-12 touches each week, the cat-quick playmaker could generate more explosive plays (10-plus yard runs and/or 20-plus yard passes) for the offense.
That said, Pollard's expanded role shouldn't take away from Elliott's priority on the game plan. Despite his fumbling woes and lack of production (100-yard games) from the two-time NFL rushing champ, Elliott is the Cowboys' top playmaker and he needs to get enough touches to make an impact. He has three games with 100-plus scrimmage yards and has nearly topped the century mark on the ground three times (22 rushes for 96 yards vs. Rams; 22 rushes for 89 yards vs. Falcons and 19 rushes for 91 yards vs. Giants). That's solid production for a running back playing behind a patchwork offensive line with a number of newcomers working into the starting rotation.
That's why No.21 needs to remain a big part of the offensive equation as a workhorse playmaker. He is a talented hybrid running back with the capacity to carry the load for the Cowboys. Although he might've lost some of the juice that made him a premier runner a few seasons ago, Elliott is still talented enough to thrive as a grinder and the Cowboys should continue to feed him as the offense's No.1 option.
The Cowboys' stars must play like stars.
The Cowboys have the potential to make a playoff run that will take the football world by surprise but it will only happen if the team's best players play like five-star talents down the stretch. From Zeke to Coop to D-Law to Aldon Smith to Jaylon Smith and LVE, the Cowboys need their stars to play like stars in each of the seven games remaining on the schedule.
In the NFL, the team with the best players typically wins each week and the Cowboys are the most talented squad in the NFC East. Sure, they are beaten up and missing a number of blue-chip starters from their preseason starting lineup but the remaining core players are good enough to carry the team over the line.
Offensively, Elliott and Cooper are five-star playmakers with the capacity to dominate the game as the focal points of a ball-control game plan. Moore and McCarthy must put each player in the best position to top the 100-yard mark to set the table for the rest of the offense. While opponents will focus extensively on slowing down No.21 and No.19 but we've seen them overcome these tactics in the past and they will need to shoulder a bigger burden with a playoff run on the line.
On defense, the Cowboys must get dominant performances from Lawrence and Aldon Smith in the trenches. Each pass rusher has shown flashes of "take over" potential but the defense needs them to overwhelm their opponent each week. In addition, the Cowboys must get A-level play from Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to control the game on defense. The duo needs to be effective against the run to force long-yardage situations while also keep the opponent's "MOF" (middle of the field) playmakers under control to neutralize the passing game. If Smith and LVE play to their Pro Bowl potential, the Cowboys' defense could emerge as a strength on a team that improves rapidly down the stretch.