(Editor's Note: DallasCowboys.com senior writer and pro wrestling aficionado Rob Phillips' new column, "Figure 4," identifies four key statistics each week that impact the Cowboys' on-field performance.)
FRISCO, Texas – After a bye weekend of rest and reflection, we start this week's stats column with the Cowboys' place in the early-season NFC playoff picture, and we'll finish with a glance at Sunday's opponent, the oh-so-close San Francisco 49ers:
1. Playoff Magic Number?
The Aaron Rodgers injury is a potential game-changer for the NFC playoff race. You can't count out the Packers based on their track record, but suddenly a legitimate contender like Green Bay is without its superstar quarterback for the foreseeable future – and that could mean a more wide-open conference race for the Cowboys and others.
Fans' bye-week angst over the Cowboys' playoff chances is understandable. They're 2-3, they've lost two straight at home, and now they're staring at a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott, pending the possibility of another court-issued injunction. (Update: Elliott was granted a temporary restraining order late Tuesday, making him eligible to play this Sunday.)
Yet, we're only five games deep, and the Dallas is sitting just one game behind three teams (Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta) for a wild-card spot if the playoffs were to start two weeks before Halloween. Personally, I'm a subscriber to the Parcells postseason theory: Check back with me after Thanksgiving. That's when we'll know where most teams really stand.
The easiest way to play into January, of course, is to win the division for a second straight year. How many wins will it take? Well, here's a quick history lesson: Since division realignment in 2002, 13 of the last 15 NFC East champions won at least 10 games.
This year, the Eagles (5-1) are already halfway to 10. But the meat of the division schedule has yet to be played. The Cowboys have five games left against NFC East foes, including two against Philly.
Finishing 10-6, of course, would mean winning eight of their final 11 games. What about a wild-card spot? Since 2002, six teams have snagged a wild-card with fewer than 10 wins – most recently the 2016 Detroit Lions at 9-7.
2. Zeke In Short Yardage
Tuesday on the show, my "Talkin' Cowboys" partner Bryan Broaddus gave you an under-the-radar stat that illustrates just how valuable Ezekiel Elliott is to the offense despite his overall rushing average dropping from 5.1 to 3.7 so far this season.
Thanks mostly to Elliott, the Cowboys are once again near the top of the league in short-yardage situations. According to STATS, they're tied for first in 4th-and-1 conversions (5 of 5) and 10th in 3rd-and-1 conversions (6 of 7).
Last year, the Cowboys tied first on 4th-and-1 (7 of 7) and ranked third on 3rd-and-1 (20 of 26).
Elliott is a major catalyst in keeping drives alive – and the offense must find ways to gain tough yards if he's not on the field at some point this season.
3. So Close In San Francisco
This past Sunday, the 49ers set an NFL record with five straight losses by three points or less. Now 0-6, their last five losses have come by a total of 13 points.
The Cowboys' record for consecutive losses by a field goal or less is three in 2002 (9-6 to Arizona; 17-14 to Seattle; 9-7 to Detroit) on their way to a 5-11 season.
Next closest is two straight losses in 1999, 1996 and 1974.
4. The Puntisher
Chris Jones got that nickname for de-cleating Detroit's Andre Roberts during a punt return last December. But his punting has been a major field position weapon for the Cowboys through five games.
The Cowboys are tied for the third-most punts inside the 20-yard line (12).And, four of the five teams ranked ahead of them have played one extra game.
Jones was a major factor in the Cowboys' critical Week 3 win at Arizona, landing four of his seven punts inside the 20.