FRISCO, Texas – You know that line in "Hotel California" by the Eagles, the band not the team?
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave!
Well, this 2020 season, it's as if the NFC East has been the Dallas Cowboys' "Hotel California." Just when it seemed the Cowboys were checking out of this division race, falling to 3-9 this past Tuesday, two games off the lead with only four games to go and their bags packed for the offseason, well, they aren't leaving just yet.
Cowboys 30, Bengals 7.
The now 4-9 Cowboys' first win in in four games, covering 21 tumultuous days, still hanging in there by a thin thread as implausible as that might seem.
The 23-point victory their largest since beating Washington 47-16 in the final game of the 2019 season.
The first time since Game 3 of the 2019 season this team has given up fewer than 10 points, encompassing 26 games.
The first time the Cowboys, that erstwhile turnover machine, did not turn the ball over a single time since the season opener.
And for veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, returning to Cincinnati where he spent the first nine years of his NFL career, the first time he's posted a win at Paul Brown Stadium from the opposite sideline, earning him a water bath when entering the visitors locker room after his postgame Fox TV interview, compliments of his appreciative Cowboys teammates.
Now, don't confuse the aqua with champagne or anything. Sure, the Cowboys were happy to finally win one. But not giddy. Not a celebration. More like relief they were not dragging themselves out of a stadium after yet another loss with no hope of possibly salvaging a lost season.
Consider this more of a stay of elimination. For now.
At least the Giants did lose, dropping them to 5-8, just a game ahead of the Cowboys.
But here is what happens when you're at the mercy of others to do some dirty work for you.
The Washingtons, even after losing now starting backup quarterback Alex Smith, beat the 49ers, 23-15, on the strength of two defensive touchdown returns to grab first place in the East at 6-7 all by their lonesome.
And the Saints – seriously, the Saints, winners of nine straight – fall 24-21 to the Eagles, who snap a four-game losing streak to pull to 4-8-1.
This is why the NFL helps those who help themselves, and the Cowboys finally did so after having lost six of their last seven.
"A very gratifying victory" is what head coach Mike McCarthy called this performance, one in which the Cowboys set the tone by grabbing three takeaways on the Bengals' first three possessions, one returned by defensive end Aldon Smith 78 yards for his first touchdown since his college days at Missouri to stake themselves to a 17-0 lead, at the time their largest of the season.
But we get it. These were the Bengals, winners of just four games in their past 29 tries. They, too, were playing with a backup quarterback. And while the Cowboys came into the game ranked dead last against the run, the Bengals weren't much better at 29th, and when it came to offense the Bengals ranked 30th running the ball and but 27th overall.
So no problem arguing the Cowboys sort of did what they should have done to this sad-sack team, providing they didn't beat themselves. In fact, the Cowboys overcame themselves, or at least their injuries, since they were missing three of their top four corners, (Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs) and one of two starting safeties (Donovan Wilson). On top of that, they actually at one point in the game were missing the two guys who were forced to start the game (Rashard Robinson and Savion Smith), meaning practice squad corner Chris Westry, elevated for this game, played the first NFL snaps of his two-year career.
So from a season standpoint, the Cowboys still are positioned behind the proverbial 8-Ball with just three games remaining – San Francisco, Philadelphia and the Giants.
Washington still must play Seattle, Carolina and Philadelphia.
The Giants must face Cleveland, Baltimore and the Cowboys.
And the Eagles are looking at Arizona, the Cowboys and Washington.
"Frankly, we clearly know what we need to do," McCarthy said, going on to more so compartmentalize this final month than get into the big picture. "We need to improve and get better. I think that will take care of itself. We understand where we are, and you just look at the last five days that we've had. I think it's important for us to get back home safely and get on a seven-day week.
"We know this 49ers game is going to be a big one for both teams. We're looking forward to turning the page and getting onto it."
McCarthy means a "normal week," since nothing the Cowboys have been through since the previous win over Minnesota on Nov. 22 has been close to normal. Short week. Emotional week. Then 12 days between games. Then short week. Both these past two games on the road.
Now finally a home game, noon Sunday against San Francisco, but still anything but a regular week since the NFL is mandating teams close their facilities to the players, coaches and football staff on Mondays and Tuesdays for the remainder of the season. That means virtual meetings, only the injured or those rehabbing allowed into the protected portion of The Star.
McCarthy would like nothing more for the Cowboys than to streak to the finish this final quarter of the season. Finally, they won their fourth game. Now the objective is to win back-to-back games for the first time since Games 7 and 8 of the 2019 season, and even at that, there was a bye in between those two wins. Why, they have not won games in consecutive weeks since opening 2019 with a three-game winning streak. Yep, it's been that long.
We've been pointing out this season, record-wise, is very similar to McCarthy's first year in Green Bay, when the Packers got off to that 4-8 start in 2006. But they rebounded to even their record by winning the final four games of the season to finish 8-8.
McCarthy said this past week he pointed that out to his team, that while at 3-9 going into Sunday's game in Cincinnati, not all is lost. There still is time to win games, possibly create momentum for the 2021 season.
For in McCarthy's second season, the Packers went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship game, only to lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who had advanced by beating the No. 1-seed Cowboys the previous week.
"I thought that it was one of the foundation blocks for my time in Green Bay, those last four wins, because it was something that we built on, talked about and emphasized throughout the whole offseason," McCarthy said. "Then in 2007, we were an overtime loss away from being in the Super Bowl. So, I definitely do believe that success at the end of the season catapults you into your offseason program and can very well factor into next year because, let's be honest, if you start fast in this league you're at such an advantage as the season moves on.
"So, to accomplish (finishing 4-0) would say a lot about our football team, especially what we've gone through. I think that's why today is so gratifying. Not only that we are happy that we won, happy that we won for Andy, but it's a very gratifying win because I thought we played really well in all three phases and we overcame a lot of in-game injuries."
As for the division title and an accompanying playoff berth, that still is a pipe dream. Washington's win over San Francisco in Arizona gives them essentially a three-game lead over the Cowboys with three to go since WFT owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.
One Cowboys loss eliminates them from the division race.
Still, the Cowboys do get a shot at doing something about this since they finish out the season playing Philly and then at the Giants. Remember, the Giants are a game up on the Cowboys, though the Cowboys won the first time around. And the Eagles are up a half-game on the Cowboys and beat the Cowboys earlier in the season.
Finishing on a four-game roll, though, seemingly unlikely considering the Cowboys year-long shortcomings – a few even showing up in the win over Cincinnati, like not finishing drives with touchdowns and allowing even the Bengals to rush for 101 yards – at
least that still is a possibility. Because no way could they win the last four if they hadn't won the first of those four.
And the Cowboys did that Sunday in the Queen City.
Even if it seems they are an eliminated-team walking.