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Back To The Future: Assessing Strengths, Weaknesses By End Of 2017

(Editor's Note: The 2017 Cowboys finished with a winning record, but they fell out of the playoffs in a disappointing follow-up to a 13-3 season. As the team seeks to find a way back to the postseason, the writers of will look back at last year, picking a positive and a negative from all 16 games that might be something to either build on or correct as we head into the 2018 season.)

Views of the Dallas Cowboys Week 16 game against the Seattle Seahawks at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

Game 15: Seahawks 21, Cowboys 12

The day the Cowboys' wild-card hopes officially expired. In what amounted to an elimination game for both teams on Christmas Eve, Seattle overcame a 9-7 halftime deficit at AT&T Stadium with two touchdowns in the second half, including a pick-six on quarterback Dak Prescott. The loss knocked the Cowboys out of playoff contention and spoiled Ezekiel Elliott's highly-anticipated return from a six-game suspension.

Encouraging: By season's end, name a tougher quarterback than Russell Wilson on the 2017 schedule. Aaron Rodgers? OK, fine. But Wilson's dynamic combo of running and passing kept the Seahawks competitive all season despite a barrage of injuries. In defeat, the Cowboys' defense kept him relatively in check. Final stat line: 14 of 21 passes for 93 yards, 2 touchdowns; 9 rushes for 29 yards. Wilson did make key plays late, but the defense gave the Cowboys enough chances to go win the game. It didn't happen.

Discouraging: So many missed opportunities on offense in this game. The Seahawks scored all 21 points off Cowboys turnovers: two Prescott interceptions and a lost fumble by Dez Bryant. And, of course, many still debate the Cowboys' decision not to hand Elliott the ball from inside the Seattle 5-yard line trailing 21-12 midway through the fourth quarter. The offense wound up settling for a field goal, the first of two misses by Dan Bailey in the fourth. Over the final eight games (six without Elliott), the offense averaged only 16 points – nearly half its average in the first eight games (28.3).

Views of the Dallas Cowboys Week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Finical Field in Philadelphia, PA.

Game 16: Cowboys 6, Eagles 0

Head coach Jason Garrett made it clear early in the week: The Cowboys would finish the season strong. Despite no chance of a postseason berth, Dallas played its normal rotation at Lincoln Financial Field and delivered the franchise's first shutout since 2009. The victory ensured back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2007.

Encouraging: Once again, the defense proved to be the most consistent phase of the team by late December. Yes, the Eagles didn't play their full starting lineup, but Rod Marinelli's group finished the season as a sound-tackling, cohesive group. Philly converted only 2 of 11 third-down chances and gained only 219 total yards. Moving forward, the defense has plenty to build on, though three starters are scheduled to be free agents (unrestricted: linebacker Anthony Hitchens, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence; restricted: defensive lineman David Irving).

Discouraging: A reversal of fortune. A year earlier, the Cowboys visited the Linc with playoff home-field advantage already clinched. This time the Eagles had the No. 1 seed and the NFC East title – everything the Cowboys set out to keep when training camp opened in July. The offseason has already seen considerable turnover on Garrett's coaching staff, and the team is going through the process of evaluating their roster and scheme. The Cowboys aren't a long way off from getting back to the postseason – at 9-7, they finished one game out of the wild-card race – but they do have a long wait to start working toward that goal again.

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