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Phillips: 4 Key Ingredients To The 4-1 Start That Has Erased Memories Of 4-12

FRISCO, Texas – Maybe it's the blue boots.

"Papa John" Schnatter, founder, CEO and president of Papa John's, told us on last Sunday's pregame show from AT&T Stadium that the Cowboys have never lost when he wears his lucky cowboy boots.

The lifetime Cowboys fan, born on Thanksgiving, is still undefeated, and the Cowboys now stand atop the NFC East at 4-1.

Really, how many people saw this coming besides Papa?

Well, the players don't seem surprised they've won four straight games and taken the division lead without three key veterans whose absence last year contributed heavily to a miserable 4-12 record. It's still a remarkable accomplishment early into this year. Just consider what Jerry Jones said at the league meetings in Florida back in March:

"I think our biggest improvement – and I'm not trying to be trite – will be a healthy (Tony) Romo and a healthy (Dez) Bryant. And having (Orlando) Scandrick," Jones said. "That'll be our biggest improvement."

No Tony Romo for all five games. No Orlando Scandrick for the last three games. No Dez Bryant for the last two games.

Yet, 4-1. Last year's win total has been matched in early October.

Something's different this year, besides Jones' persistent pledge that the team would never again look over their shoulder waiting for the inevitable return of injured or suspended players. There's a tangible shift in the way this year's team is performing five games into the season.

As we say twice an hour about Papa John's on Talkin' Cowboys, it's better ingredients that make the difference.

1. Third down.

Simply put, the Cowboys are sustaining drives better than last year. They lead the NFL with a 50-percent conversion rate on third down, way up from last year's 34.6 percent that ranked 27th out of 32 teams. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has a 107.4-percent passer rating on third down, third-best in the league. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is second in the league in first downs (32), and the offense is considerably better on short-yardage third-down conversions (70.0 percent on third and 1-3, up from 49.0 percent last year).

One reason for their improvement: better success on first and second down. The Cowboys averaged 5.8 yards on first down last year; so far this year, it's 5.7. But on second down they're averaging 6.0 yards, including 8.5 last Sunday against the Bengals. That's a major increase from last year's 4.8-yard average. Prescott and the offense are getting into more manageable third-down situations, and it's paying off.

2. Running the ball into the end zone.

The Cowboys had eight rushing touchdowns last year led by Joseph Randle (four), who only played in six games and was released in November. This year, the Cowboys lead the league with 11 rushing touchdowns. No question the team didn't get quality backup quarterback play for most of last year, but your odds of scoring touchdowns inside the 20 decrease when you have to pass your way into the end zone every time – particularly without Dez Bryant in the lineup. The Cowboys are scoring red-zone touchdowns 68.4 percent of the time compared to 44.4 percent last year.

3. Turnover margin.

The thin line between wins and losses. Last year through five games, the Cowboys had a minus-five margin and started 2-3. This year, it's plus-two, tied for ninth in the league.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants more takeaways – they're tied for 22nd with five – but the offense is tied for the third-fewest turnovers (three). Last year through five games they had eight turnovers that led to 27 points; this year they have four turnovers that have led to 17 points.

It's a credit to Prescott's remarkable efficiency. He's eight pass attempts away from the most ever without an interception to start a career.

"If you think about it, you get the ball 60-70 plays a game the ball is in your hands, and everybody's coming to get it," head coach Jason Garrett says. "You might drop back 25 or 30 times and you have to be a great decision-maker. You have to understand what the offense is trying to do, what the defense is trying to do and how it all fits together in a short period of time. He's done a really good job processing things."

4. Second-half defense.

The Cowboys' defense has been in bend-but-don't-break mode at times. They've allowed 18 "big" pass plays (over 20 yards) and 14 "big" run plays (over 10 yards). Last year through five games they allowed 15 and 14, respectively.

But despite the Bengals' 14 points in the fourth quarter last Sunday, the Cowboys have been tougher in crunch time. In the first half of games, opponents have converted 45.8 percent on third down (11-of-24). In the second half, they've converted only 34.5 percent (10-of-29). The defense has gotten off the field in critical situations, particularly in close road wins over the Redskins and 49ers. That was a problem last season.

The Cowboys are clearly motivated to overcome injuries this time around, and there's tangible proof on the field.

It's all in these ingredients.

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