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Spagnola: Must continue streaking to 4 straight


FRISCO, Texas – One down, three to go.

That's the only way to look at this stretch of football between the 28-23 loss to Philadelphia and the rematch against the Eagles on Dec. 10 at AT&T Stadium.

Because for that game to be NFC East-title meaningful, then, as we keep emphasizing, the Cowboys must go on a four-game winning streak.

Great they pummeled the Giants, 49-17, in the first of those four games. That's one and only one. No extra credit for winning by 32 points.

Now here comes No. 2, high noon Sunday against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. Can't get to four straight without first two straight.

This is serious stuff. Can't emphasize that enough. The Cowboys are 6-3. The Eagles are 8-1. A two-game difference, the Eagles with the upper hand having already beaten Dallas. The Cowboys must do their part to at least maintain that two-game separation come that Sunday night at AT&T Stadium if they want to potentially defend that NFC East streak of no team winning back-to-back division titles since those Eagles did so from 2001-04. Nobody. Not the Cowboys nor the Eagles since.

And who knows, maybe someone else does the Cowboys a favor, starting with the Chiefs in Kansas City this coming Monday night facing the Eagles. Then Philadelphia must play Buffalo and San Francisco at home, followed by those road games against the Cowboys and Seattle, while the Cowboys face home games after Carolina with Washington and Seattle, the last half of my four-game streak.

See what I mean?

Not to go old school, but in 1991 the Cowboys were sitting 6-5, having just lost two consecutive games. But they streaked to the finish, winning the last five, including upsetting the undefeated Washingtons on the road to start that winning streak, to clinch their first playoff berth since 1985 as a wild-card team.

Then again in 1993. After the defending Super Bowl champs lost the opening two games of the season and then two more straight on the Sunday-Thanksgiving doubleheader, head coach Jimmy Johnson told his 7-4 Cowboys they had to now win five straight to clinch the NFC East again and homefield playoff advantage. Man, he went to the whip. Drove that team hard. And they did not win the fifth straight until Eddie Murray kicked that second-possession overtime field goal to beat the Giants to take the East crown, demoting New York to a wild-card team.

Streaking is important, and this has nothing to do with my college days back the spring of 1974 when some 600 streakers paraded through the University of Missouri's iconic columns butt-naked one evening.

So to me, the Cowboys must know the importance of this four-game stretch. And that is why overlooking the Carolina Panthers come Sunday is not an option. Yeah, we can think, ah, what's the big deal? The Panthers are but 1-8. They only score 16 points a game, and only that humble amount thanks to scoring 27 at Seattle when losing by 10 points. Otherwise, only two other times have they scored more than 17 points: 24 against Detroit and 21 against Miami, and both times they lost because of giving up 42 points.

Plus, the Panthers are making changes. Head coach Frank Reich has gone from also calling plays for the first six games to giving up that duty to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown. But now after three games when scoring 15, 13 and 13, with Eddie Pineiro kicking seven field goals during that stretch and the Carolina offense scoring just two touchdowns with a punt return for a third, Reich returns to calling plays on Sunday.

Easy-peasy, no?

"One game at a time," cautioned KaVontae Turpin, the second-year wide receiver/kick returner practicing fully this week after missing the Giants game with a bum shoulder. "This is the NFL. They can come out and play their best game of the year."

See the Cardinals, 28-16 winners over the Cowboys at their place in the third week of the season, what had stood as their only victory until this past Sunday for a now 2-8 team.

Overconfidence is too easy of an excuse for a loss like that. Poor preparation, out-schemed and missing three-fifths of their offensive line starters comes to mind.

Losing that game and a non-competitive loss to the now 6-3 Niners has placed a higher premium on no more slipups. If the Cowboys are to get where they profess wanting to go this 2023 season, then there is a much higher premium on beating a struggling team like the Panthers playing with a rookie quarterback (Bryce Young) and then the 4-6 Commanders with Sam Howell at QB.

We'll deal with Seattle the following Thursday night after that.

And it's no surprise head coach Mike McCarthy continues to pinpoint the focus this week on the Panthers.

"We got to go get this win," McCarthy said.

The no-nonsense coach doubles down with his emphasis, too, going on to say, "It's still the NFL. We got to line up. We got to play very well. We need to get better as a football team."

Sure these Cowboys do, especially on the road where they are 2-3 as opposed to 4-0 at home, stretching their home winning streak to 12 straight. But remember, at home they have not played a team yet the quality of Philadelphia and San Francisco. Let's not lean too heavily on this sleeping in their own beds baloney for the discrepancy. The combined record of the four teams they have beaten at AT&T this season is 11-27. The record of those five road opponents stands at 20-17.

Here are two other factors lending to these road woes, and let's thank McCarthy for a more pragmatic approach. Lack of takeaways, a strength usually for this defense, and too many dang penalties.

Start with the takeaways, the Cowboys grabbing 10 in the first four games. They've had four in the last five. Of the 14 total, these homebodies have nine at home but five on the road.

And then penalties, where the normal excuse is lack of discipline. But to me, most are caused by struggling against superior competition. The Cowboys have been flagged for 69 penalties in nine games. Why, 45 of those in five road games, averaging nine a game, while the other 24 at home, er, six a game – the highs of 13, 11 and 10 taking place on the road.

Let's remind you Sunday's game is but a couple hours drive from what's known in the collegiate ranks as Tobacco Road, emphasis on "road."

But McCarthy is right. This Cowboys team is not a finished product, despite spanking the woeful Giants by 32 points. Despite Dak Prescott's recent four-game hot streak and CeeDee Lamb soaring up the receiver ranks with these past three games worth at least 10 catches, 150 yards and three touchdowns in each, a first in the NFL. Not this year mind you. In history! Also, Brandin Cooks erupting for 173 yards receiving against the Giants and the offense compiling 640 total yards, second most in franchise history and only by 12 yards.

Be nice if the run game improves, the 168 yards against the Giants, second most this season, a jumping off point. Would make life easier inside the 20-yard line, especially the 10, where there are still struggles. Pressure on opposing quarterbacks could improve a skosh, totaling 14 of their 26 QB sacks in the first four games, and then just seven in the next four before punishing rookie Tommy DeVito with five this past Sunday – and just four total in losses to San Fran and Philly.

But good to hear the veteran Cooks put the Giants game into perspective, saying, "Now I'm on to next week."

Meaning this Sunday. Meaning Carolina. Meaning on the road.

As McCarthy said, "We need this seventh win."

Meaning, quite importantly, No. 2 of the required four straight in my books.

And ol' Jerry Jones, he sounded his battle cry for Sunday's game at Carolina, mostly for any and all taking a win over the 1-8 Panthers for granted.

"Remember Arizona."

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