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Science Lab: A berth requires 3 strong trimesters


FRISCO, TX — It's not surprising that head coach Mike McCarthy chooses to divide the 2023 regular season into trimesters for the Dallas Cowboys, considering they're working desperately on delivering their first Super Bowl berth since the mid-1990s.

It's truly a labor of love at this point.

Pause for absorption.

This team is working to take another (and bigger) step this postseason after posting two consecutive 12-5 seasons that ended on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend and the NFC Divisional Game, respectively. They're off to a strong start with a 4-2 record exiting their bye week, especially when you consider they've yet to play a complete football game.

"It's always Super Bowl or bust when you play for this organization." - Dak Prescott

Other top NFC teams have already though, and yet the Cowboys are currently hot on the heels of the very same San Francisco 49ers (5-2) who thumped them in Week 5, the red-hot Detroit Lions (5-2) who were themselves mutilated in Week 6 and a Philadelphia Eagles (6-1) team that lost to the very same New York Jets that the Cowboys took out back and beat like a dirty rug.

With several good teams and no runaway favorite — after the 49ers were humbled with a two-game losing streak — the conference is ripe for the taking and the Cowboys have an amazing opportunity in Week 7 to spark a November run that could potentially sit them atop the NFC by the time the month of December rolls around.

Under McCarthy, and with a mostly healthy roster, the odds increase.

That's because McCarthy is 11-5 coming out of the bye week over the course of his career as an NFL head coach, very nearly 12-4, if not for an overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2022 that ultimately led to offseason changes at offensive coordinator and play-caller, along with a decision to swap Noah Brown for Brandin Cooks (though the Jaguars outing fueled that as well) and the added move for Stephon Gilmore to bolster the defensive secondary.

That said, it made me wonder how the Cowboys have fared in the five games following their bye week over the last two seasons — hoping to get an idea of what we might be in for in the weeks to come. I omitted the 2020 season here, for the same reason as in my Week 4 segment of this column, in that there were too many aberrations that would skew the results to an incredible level.

There were indeed some contractions in 2021, though.

Record entering bye (Week 7): 5-1

Opponents + Location and Outcome:

  • Vikings (Road) - Win, 20-16
  • Broncos (Home) - Loss 16-30
  • Falcons (Home) - Win, 43-3
  • Chiefs (Road) - Loss, 9-19
  • Raiders (Home) - Loss- 33-36 OT

"It's extremely important [to rally and go on a run]], especially now that we're heading into November." - Micah Parsons

The Lion isn't lying.

As you can see, the Cowboys came out of the bye week with a close victory over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium only to lose three of their next four games, including two upsets at home. That's about as ideal as your DoorDash driver bringing your food, knocking on the door and waiting for you to open it before punting your order into the yard like Bryan Anger.

It then took a four-game win streak in December to help propel them to the aforementioned first of two 12-5 finishes. They won the NFC East by a sizable margin but fell just one game shy of challenging for the No. 1 seed in the NFC that year, owned by the Packers (13-4), and you have to wonder if expending playoff-level energy during that stretch fatigued them heading into the actual playoffs.

That's just me thinking out loud.

But how about the 2022 season? Well, let's just say the script was mostly flipped.

Record entering bye (Week 8): 6-2

Opponents + Location and Outcome:

  • Packers (Road) - Loss, 28-31 OT
  • Vikings (Road) - Win, 40-3
  • Giants (Home) - Win, 28-20
  • Colts (Home) - Win, 54-19
  • Texans (Home) - Win, 27-23

"Their ability to step away mentally and emotionally is probably the most important. And, physically, it's good for all of them." - Mike McCarthy

Things went precipitously better last season, as you can see, but not without some early motivation by way of the Packers, in a contest they had well in-hand until they softened and allowed Aaron Rodgers to turn Christian Watson into the second coming of Randy Moss, though that was also fueled by the loss of two starting cornerbacks being lost to injury.

Still, it was a game that should've been won, but wasn't.

They'd bounce back by gutting the Vikings like it was commanded by the Allfather, then taking down the Giants en route to snatching the horseshoes off of the Colts and mounting a 98-yard game-winning drive to overcome the Texans in a matchup that saw Jason Peters save the day at right tackle due to Terence Steele's torn ACL.

Ultimately, they'd land at 12-5 again after splitting their final four outings and manhandle Tom Brady in what became the final game of his incomparable NFL career before losing to, guess who, the 49ers in the second round of the playoffs.

If they don't split in their final four, losing in overtime to the Jaguars (another game that was in-hand before mistakes were made) and a oddity of a showing at FedEx Field in the final regular season game, they're higher in the seeding and there's a different butterfly effect.

The strong November gave way to a middled December and a break-even January, ending their season and logging another failed mission and stretching the annual drought count to 28 years.

But it's also true, however, that progress was made over the previous season and, not so coincidentally in the same season in which the Cowboys delivered a hot November meal right to the front door of the NFC.

Take that, DoorDash.

"It's about protecting your home turf. If you want to be successful in this league, you gotta be able to protect your home field." - Brandin Cooks

What will likely help a potential win streak following this year's bye week will be a looming three-game homestand — the first and only of the 2023 season — following a visit to the Carolina Panthers in Week 11; considering the Cowboys played four of their first six games (and eventually six of their first 10 games) on the road, without so much as a two-game homestand during this stretch.

A brutal schedule, this is.

The only time they'll play more than two games in a row at home this entire regular season will be during the aforementioned three-game homestand. In case you didn't notice, that four-game win streak I noted above from the 2022 season included a three-game home streak.

All told, they own a 15-4 record at home since 2021 and have won 10 straight at AT&T Stadium, so the three-game homestand that awaits them this time around hints at great tidings.

That is, of course, if they attack the Los Angeles Rams with the aggression that matches what the Jets and Patriots faced in Arlington, and if they use a loss like the one against the Arizona Cardinals to keep them from overlooking a struggling team like the Carolina Panthers. Make the Giants feel the burn of another manhandling, this time in North Texas, and repay the Washington Commanders for the 26-6 embarrassment in Week 17 of the 2022 season.

Most importantly, having flunked their first major test — the battle with the 49ers that was anything but — there can be no letdown in their next major one to come: the Eagles in Philly.

And so it goes that the Cowboys absolutely must have a second trimester to remember but, if they do, they also can't let that allow for an overconfident final trimester that could create complications in the delivery room.

Berth is never easy, but if you want it, it's always worth the process.

Now push.

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