Spagnola: Cowboys Stomping Their Way Through Mighty Tough Stretch

FRISCO, Texas – And now for the home stretch.

         And what a home stretch it is.

         You know, so much is being made of the Cowboys now playing four consecutive night games on national television, starting with last week's Thursday night game at Minnesota, this Sunday night's battle against the New York Football Giants at MetLife Stadium, then next Sunday night's flexed game at home against Tampa Bay and finally the Monday night game after Christmas against Detroit.

         But if you pause to think about this, the Cowboys are going to end up playing a real NFL Murderer's Row – seven consecutive games against teams in the playoff hunt, and in this order.

         Pittsburgh, at 7-5, now tied for first in the AFC North.

         Baltimore, at 7-5, now tied for first in the AFC North with the Steelers.

         Washington, at 6-5-1, third in the NFC East but still in contention for a wild-card berth.

         Minnesota, at 6-6, now tied for second in the NFC North, still in the hunt for a wild-card berth.

New York Giants, at 8-4, needing to beat the Cowboys Sunday night to stay in contention for the NFC East title, but certainly leading the field for a wild-card berth.

Tampa Bay, at 7-5, tied for first in the NFC South with Atlanta.

Detroit, at 8-4, a two-game lead over Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North.

Man, that's enough to wear you out just thinking about it, every one of those teams no less than .500, and the last three fighting for their playoff lives.

So stifle all this silliness, exalting over the Cowboys becoming the first team to clinch a mere playoff berth at 11-1. You'd think after reeling off a franchise single-season record 11 consecutive victories you'd be in the catbird's seat. But noooo, not yet.

And cut all this jabber over the Cowboys resting players so they are as fresh and as healthy as they can be for the playoffs. This team has some serious lifting yet to do. They don't just hand you the NFC East title, or a first-round bye or home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. There still is a whole lot more to accomplish.

Plus, listen to veteran cornerback Brandon Carr's logic for keeping the pedal to the metal, no matter if they are fortunate enough to accomplish these goals early:

"The most important thing in these next four games, we may see one of those teams in the playoffs anyway, so it's important for us to set the tone and establish who we are early, so when they see us again they get an understanding of what they're dealing with."

Plus, beat 'em and you might rid yourself of those guys, never having to face them again this year. Lose and that team comes back brimming with confidence in a potential rematch.

So this stretch all begins at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at what will certainly be an all-riled up MetLife Stadium, the Cowboys facing the only team to defeat them this year, the Giants taking that season-opener, 20-19.

But these opponents must also realize the task they face: A Cowboys offense averaging 27.5 points a game and a much-questioned defense giving up a respectable 19 points a game.

Here is another fact those others must fret: The Cowboys will absolutely stomp the ball into the end zone, their 20 rushing touchdowns not only second in the NFL to Buffalo's 23, but with four games to play already their most rushing touchdowns since tallying 21 in 2006 and 1998, and just off the franchise record pace of 29, set in 1995 when Emmitt Smith scored a franchise single-season record of 25. And see if you can draw a parallel here: Dallas rushed for at least 20 touchdowns in 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Hmmmm.

Also, so far this season the Cowboys have scored at least one rushing touchdown in 10 of their 12 games, obviously Ezekiel Elliott leading the way with 12 of his own, though fellow rookie quarterback Dak Prescott pitching in with five, already tying the franchise single-season record for a quarterback with four games to play, initially set by Don Meredith in 1966 – 50 years ago. Think about that for a second.

To emphasize just what Elliott and the Cowboys are doing on the ground, consider the Cowboys only rushed for eight touchdowns while compiling that 4-12 record last year. Or how about this in 2011, the likely impetus for the Cowboys to continue building that offensive line through the draft: The Cowboys set the franchise low with five rushing touchdowns. Five now.

Why, never in the franchise's 57 seasons have the Cowboys ever had a winning record when rushing for no more than 10 touchdowns in a season.

See, it's one thing to rank second in the league in rushing, the Cowboys averaging 155.8 yards a game. Yeah, the yards are great. But it's another thing when you consistently run the ball into the end zone. That sure makes life easier, and much easier to be proficient in the red zone, where the Cowboys rank third in the NFL, scoring touchdowns inside the 20 at a 66-percent rate (31-of-47).

Of the Cowboys' 20 rushing touchdowns, 18 have been from inside the 20.

"It certainly helps you in the red zone when you can attack running the ball in those situations," Cowboys center Travis Frederick says. "That creates run looks (from the defense) and helps you to pass the ball."

Again, yards are great, and so is time of possession, but as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett will tell you time and time again, the goal is to score touchdowns, not simply hog the football.

And score touchdowns the Cowboys have. They are locked in a three-way tie for third with 39 total touchdowns, Atlanta leading with 44 and New Orleans next with 42. By comparison, the Cowboys scored only 26 touchdowns last season, averaging right at 10 points a game fewer than their current 12-game average this year (27.5).

Here is another huge threat to defenses: The ability to run the ball into the end zone from afar. Elliott already has five touchdown runs of at least 10 yards, two of those from 32 and 60 yards out. The Cowboys also have six touchdown runs of at least five yards.

Nothing is more demoralizing to a defense than being run right over for six. And when it comes to "chunk" runs, those for 10-plus yards, the Cowboys already have nearly doubled their opponents, 55 to 28. They also have totaled more with four games left to play than last year's 51.

"It's definitely deflating," Carr says of a defense giving up a lengthy touchdown run or big runs. "You call it a gash. It hurts to let a guy run from out into the end zone.

"It hurts, it hurts bad."

So who knows what the weather will be like in The Meadowlands on Sunday night with snow in the forecast. Same for the season finale in Philadelphia. But if you can bring into town an efficient running game that threatens the back end of defenses, one that's not afraid to stomp the ball into the end zone, scoring points becomes much easier.

Face it, touchdowns do matter.

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