FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys have their "eyes forward," as head coach Jason Garrett said this week, with the NFC playoffs divisional round up next Jan. 15 at AT&T Stadium.
As the team heads into the bye weekend, the DallasCowboys.com staff takes one last look back at a memorable and historic regular season that included a franchise-record tying 13 wins, the emergence of new stars, and the opportunity to compete for a championship.
David: It's kind of ironic that we put our midseason list out just three days before the best win of the season – the thrilling 35-30 win against Pittsburgh. Yes, the win against Green Bay was incredibly impressive, as the Cowboys dominated one of the best quarterbacks in football. But that win at Heinz Field was utterly scintillating. Dak Prescott overcame an early turnover to throw for 300 yards, and Dez Bryant catching a 50-yard touchdown just hours. Ezekiel Elliott also gave us an amazing glimpse into his capabilities, as he tallied 209 all-purpose yards and saved the game on multiple occasions – including the game-winner with just seconds to play. It was an all-timer, and it will be one of my longest-lasting memories from the 2016 season.
Rob: At the time, Jason Garrett told his players the road trip to Minnesota might be his favorite win of the season. It wasn't the prettiest, for sure, but it embodied the type of team effort we've seen all year. The offense kept grinding against a quality defense in a thunderous stadium, but big plays on defense and special teams were the difference. It's the type of gritty game championship-level teams go win.
Bryan: Not many teams go to Pittsburgh and pull off a victory. It was a struggle the entire day but the Cowboys beat the Steelers at their own game. Quality quarterback play and running the ball.
Nick: It's harder to pick these when you have so many to choose from. While winning at Pittsburgh was dramatic, I think the win over Green Bay at Lambeau was the best one. That's when we realized how good the Cowboys were on both sides of the ball and they made Aaron Rodgers look average on that day. However, they might have to beat them again to advance.
David: It's got to be considered bad – even awful – when you hold the opponent to 10 points and still can't find a way to win. The entire Dallas offense looked like it forgot to board the flight to New York back on Dec. 11. Dak played his worst game of the season, and Dez Bryant made fatal mistakes on not one, but two interceptions. Even the always-reliable Dan Bailey missed a field goal. It was just an all-around mess. Even worse: Sean Lee played arguably the greatest game of his career, notching 22 tackles, and it all went to waste in a loss.
Rob: Tossing out the regular-season finale (since few starters played normal snaps) narrows it down to the two Giants games. You can look at this two ways: was it more disappointing the Cowboys missed a couple of scoring chances in Week 1, or that they simply got outplayed in Week 14? I'll say the latter. The Giants bottled up the passing game and put pressure on the Cowboys' defense to make stop after stop. The team's best strength is their offensive balance, and they'll have to keep it in the playoffs against whichever team they face – perhaps New York again.
Bryan: I am going to be different and say New York Giants in Week 1. Even though it was Prescott and Elliott's first starts, they had a chance to win that game in the end. I am not going to put it all on Terrance Williams, but would have loved to have seen Dan Bailey with a shot there in the end.
Nick:It's either the first game vs. NYG or the second. I'll take the second one because the defense was so good that night. Usually when you allow just 10 points on the road, you'll win. And the fact the Cowboys had a field goal clang off the crossbar shows how close they were from at least being tied. That game should've been won but it didn't really matter in the big picture.
David: Everything about the way the Cowboys snuck out of Minnesota with a win was crazy. They needed a Kyle Wilber fumble recovery to even set the offense up for the game-winning touchdown. Even then, they got a bit lucky when the Vikings tried to tie the game in the dying seconds. As much as the NFL seeks to protect quarterbacks, how amazing is it that Cedric Thornton didn't get flagged for grazing Sam Bradford's helmet on the Vikings' failed two-point conversion? If Minnesota had gotten another shot and tied the game, I'm not sure I'd have liked the Cowboys' chances in overtime.
Rob: Just let this sink in, please: the Cowboys lost those two Giants games by a combined four points. That means a couple more field goals, maybe an extra red zone touchdown conversion, and they would have been playing for a 16-0 season last Sunday. Incredible. Would starters have rested with perfection at stake?
Bryan: Both Washington games. Those could have gone either way with a bounce here or there. Red Zone defense saved the day in those victories.
Nick: The Cowboys were pretty close to signing a veteran quarterback after Kellen Moore went down in camp. Nick Foles nearly agreed to a deal but changed his mind. If that happens, Dak doesn't get nearly the amount of reps he received and who knows how things would've changed this year.
David:Did you know that over the last five games of the season, the Dallas pass rush racked up 16 sacks? That's 44 percent of their season total of 36 in just five games. Now, you could argue they've been facing weak offensive lines, but a good chunk of that success came against playoff teams like New York and Detroit. In that timespan we've seen guys like David Irving and Benson Mayowa emerge as viable pass rushers for a line that struggled in the early going of the season. If they maintain that momentum in the playoffs, it could be huge.
Rob: The Cowboys' fourth-round rookie quarterback, who entered training camp third on the depth chart, who supposedly needed time in the system coming from a college spread offense, just became the only player in NFL history not named Tom Brady with at least 3,500 passing yards and fewer than five interceptions in a season. What Dak Prescott has accomplished this season is nothing short of remarkable. And here's the thing: he'll only get better from here.
Bryan:That this defense found a form of a pass rush as the year went on. What everyone believed was an absolute weakness was talked about less and less. They proved a lot of people wrong.
Nick: Let's stay away from the team's fourth-round pick taking over for Romo and winning 13 games and keeping the face of the franchise from getting his job back. Another huge surprise is how this defense came together despite the lack of star players. They didn't force a lot of turnovers or generate a lot of sacks, but somehow managed to play well enough in key moments.
David: The defense has been so surprisingly good all year long, but they don't generate nearly enough takeaways for my liking. They were better this year than last, but they still finished with just 20 on the season. That's tied for 19th in the league, and it's also only ninth among 12 playoff teams. Only Seattle, Houston and Detroit have fewer. Obviously, the Cowboys have proven they don't need takeaways to win ball games. But when you're going against quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson – or perhaps Tom Brady, it could certainly help.
Rob: The Cowboys are fortunate they clinched home-field advantage as early as they did. So many defensive players are getting essentially two weeks' rest. The defensive line, in particular, has had three starters out, and now Randy Gregory has been suspended again. They need as many guys close to full strength as possible because all three possible opponents have top quarterbacks and skill players. The pass rush has gotten better week to week and it must continue.
Bryan: The return game. They just haven't gotten enough from Lucky Whitehead in flipping the field. Too many mistakes as a unit, whether penalties or poor blocking, has led to negative results.
Nick: Despite my biggest surprise being defense, the concern is still defense. In the playoffs, you're going to see some dynamic players and you know the weather won't be a factor. If it's a Julio Jones or Odell Beckham or maybe Jordy Nelson and that group, the Cowboys will be tested in a major way and I still wonder if they've got the talent to match up on that side of the ball.
David:I said this back at the halfway point, and nothing has changed my opinion to this point: Ezekiel Elliott has been phenomenal, but Dak Prescott is why the Cowboys are 13-3. This team had a great running game in 2015, but the quarterback play was awful – and the Cowboys slunk to a 4-12 record. This time around Prescott is finding open receivers and forcing defenders to respect the pass, and it has made all the difference. Look no further than the Dec. 11 loss to New York. Elliott had plenty of success against the Giants, rushing for 107 yards on the night. But Prescott was off his game, and the offense stagnated. Elliott is the engine that makes the offense hum, but Dak is the driver – and this team goes as he goes.
Rob: Dak? Zeke? The O-Line? You can go in any direction, but I'm sticking with Ezekiel Elliott. The rookie won the rushing title with more yards than any player gained last season, too, but maybe most important, he has set an identity for this offense. They set a physical tone in the first quarter and challenge opponents to match it over four quarters.
Bryan: Dak Prescott. I thought that even with Tony Romo at quarterback this had the potential to be a nine-win team. For Prescott to take the reins opening day and march this team through the season says a lot about him as a player.
Nick: I don't know how it's not Ezekiel Elliott. Sure, the Cowboys have other great players on offense, but the heart and soul of this team is its running game. And the way Zeke has been able to establish himself as an elite runner in his first season suggests that he's the most valued offensive player on this team.
David:Back in November, I would've said Morris Claiborne. How could it have been anyone but him? But unfortunately, Mo hasn't suited up since Halloween. In his place, we've seen the healthiest and most productive season of Sean Lee's career. He might not have gotten a Pro Bowl bid, but he finished the regular season healthy, having compiled 145 tackles and 13 tackles on the year. He has been consistent and consistently good, providing a solid backbone for this defense.
Rob: There's a reason the Cowboys were shocked and disappointed Sean Lee didn't make the Pro Bowl. He's the perfect example of this defense's identity: disciplined, fast, aggressive, productive. He's a big reason the defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher this year. And he didn't miss a defensive snap until the team opted to rest him in Week 17.
Bryan:Sean Lee. He's been the glue that's held this defense together while dealing with all these injuries. I think that his best football is ahead in these playoffs.
Nick:I'm skipping past the obvious. It's easily Sean Lee, hands down. I'll answer for the runner-up and I think it's Byron Jones. This safety might not make a ton of turnovers, but he's preventing big plays left and right. His skill set is so unique that he is quietly keeping the offensive playmakers in front of him.
Dak's Defining Moment:
David: I think my answer is going to be a little bit different than everyone else's, but it has stuck with me this year. Back on Thanksgiving Day, the Redskins rallied their way back from a 17-6 deficit, with Kirk Cousins bombing away on the Dallas secondary. After kicking just two field goals before halftime, Washington scored three touchdowns in the second half, cutting the deficit to five points on three separate occasions. With the Cowboys defense reeling, Dak took control. He led the Cowboys on a seven-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in a 6-yard touchdown run. Washington scored again, cutting the lead back to five – and Dak responded again. The second time, it was an eight-play, 53-yard touchdown drive. It was such an impressive display of poise by the rookie. Washington threw haymaker after haymaker, and Dak responded every time.
Rob:When Prescott delivered two touchdown drives in the final eight minutes at Pittsburgh, including three completions in the final minute to set up Elliott's deciding touchdown – and a week later, Tony Romo was active for the first time all season as the backup quarterback. The win over the Steelers further cemented that Prescott had won the job – and maybe more important, that he could lead this team to a road win against a proud franchise like Pittsburgh.
Bryan:The Pittsburgh game was special in my eyes, but to also go to Lambeau Field and outduel Aaron Rodgers has a place in my heart as well. At this point is when I believed he had a chance to have a special season.
Nick: To me, the best moment for Dak came before his first NFL start. I go back to the Seattle preseason game when he didn't think he was going in for a few series. Instead, Romo gets hurt and Dak puts down the clipboard and headset and jumps right into the action. He goes up against the NFL's best defense in a tough environment and marched the team down the field. That's when I first thought he was special.
Need More From:
David: We've seen glimpses of what David Irving is capable of – thinking back to the games against Green Bay, Tampa and Detroit. With the defensive line dealing with various injuries, Irving is going to need to show it again. I'm terrified of giving an opponent – like Aaron Rodgers, for instance – too much time to stand in the pocket. We've seen that story before, and it could be problematic in the playoffs. Irving could go a long way toward helping with that.
Rob: David Irving had three forced fumbles in 19 plays against the Green Bay Packers in October. Down the stretch, he has been outstanding with more and more defensive snaps. The Cowboys are getting healthier on defense, but they still need as many disruptive pass rushers as possible. In the divisional playoff game against the Packers two years ago, they just didn't get to Aaron Rodgers enough. Irving needs to continue being a difference maker for this group.
Bryan: It's not fair to ask - but the secondary. To make it to Houston, they're going to have to face some of the best skill players in the NFL. As a unit they've more than held their part of the bargain, but the playoffs will be a different season for them. How well they play will go a long way in determining their postseason fate.
Nick:The Cowboys need more from Dez. And there have been games here lately where he's been capable of providing more. But he's an elite player who didn't have the best numbers this year. They need him to be elite so the guys around him can also shine.
Don't Forget About:
David: I mentioned Morris Claiborne earlier, and I have confidence he can be a bit of an X-factor heading into this postseason. The Cowboys are confident he can return fully healthy. If that's the case, we saw how good he can be – shutting down guys like A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery. Combine Claiborne with how well Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown have played in his absence, and it could lift the secondary quite a bit higher.
Rob:The youth of this team has been talked about so much, largely because of the Pro Bowl impact from Prescott and Elliott, that we forget over half this roster was part of the 2014 team that won a playoff game and pushed the Packers to the limit in the divisional round. Experience is a plus in the playoffs to some extent, and the coaching staff as well as many players have a fairly recent postseason experience to draw from. Prescott and Elliott don't, but they've yet to show they can be overwhelmed by any situation.
Bryan:Terrance Williams. Just a gut feeling but he's played well in big games. He is peaking at the right time for this playoff run.
Nick:This team is not only rather young in two positions but they're inexperienced at this time of year. I was shocked to find out Terrance Williams is the ONLY player to have scored a postseason touchdown. I was caught off guard when I learned Sean Lee has never played a playoff game. It's not just the QB and RB – a lot of guys on this team are new to this level of football.
David: It's funny how much expectations change over the course of the season. When we started, this season was beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But as much fun as it's been, there are no moral victories in the NFL. It will be considered a sore disappointment if the Cowboys don't at least reach the Super Bowl, no matter how few people expected them to get to this point. Luckily, they have the benefit of home-field advantage, not to mention an offense that few have proven capable of stopping. I can't say for sure whether the Cowboys get to Houston, but they have as good a chance as anybody – if not better.
Rob: The Cowboys clinched home-field advantage because they've clearly been the most consistent team in the NFC all season. Since losing the season opener to the New York Giants, 20-19, the Cowboys have outscored opponents at AT&T Stadium, 214-138, in seven straight wins. That's a 30.6 scoring average against some pretty good defenses. Point is, the Cowboys have been very productive offensively at home. Without knowing their next opponent, if their defense can get healthier over this next week, a trip to Houston wouldn't be a surprise based on their season-long body of work.
Bryan: All you can ask is to have playoff games at home in January and they've accomplished that. Win two games and you're in the Super Bowl but this road will not be easy. Offensively this team was built to win in the playoffs even with a rookie quarterback. With all that said, I do like their chances to take advantage of the situation that they've earned if they continue to control the game and finish drives. Opponents need to fear this matchup as well.
Nick: Sometimes it's just meant to be. I think the Cowboys are meant to play the Super Bowl in Houston. All I keep hearing is things like "I don't wanna play the Giants" or "the Packers scare me." Yeah, well I bet teams are scared of the Cowboys, too. They should be. I think Dallas wins two games at home and will face Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I'm sure I'll have a place to write down my prediction for that game if and when we get there.
View some of our favorite photos from the the final practice before the playoff bye weekend. MLB pitcher (and Dallas native) Clayton Kershaw was in attendance.