FRISCO, Texas – Keep hearing how the Cowboys have nothing to play for Saturday night in Philadelphia against the Eagles.
Oh, contraire. Let's see if we can change your minds.
First, a victory over the Eagles would give the Cowboys a perfect 6-0 record in the NFC East. You realize the last time the Cowboys ran the NFC East was 1998, Chan Gailey's first year as the head coach, the Cowboys going 8-0 in that 10-6 season.
In fact, that is the only time the Cowboys have finished undefeated in NFC East games in the 51-year history of the division. Not in any of the four consecutive seasons landing in the NFC title game from 1992-95, three of those Super Bowl championship seasons. Not in any of the three consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances from 1980-82. Not in any of those five years in the 1970s the Cowboys landed in Super Bowls, winning two.
And on top of all that, only once during their three seasons in the Capitol Division – before the merger between the NFL and AFL coming under one umbrella – did the Cowboys finish undefeated in division games, 6-0 in 1969.
So, not a bad feather in their cap if they do.
Then there is the 12th victory head coach Mike McCarthy keeps mentioning, trying to keep his team's attention. Only thrice in the franchise's now 62nd year history have the Cowboys won more than 12 games in a regular season, first in 1992 going 13-3, again 13-3 in 2007 and lastly 13-3 in 2016. Plus, the last 12-win seasons in the three consecutive years of 1993, 1994 and 1995, winning those Super Bowls in two of those three seasons.
"We're going to play this one and it's the thing for us to do as a football team," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy says.
OK, get it, more historical than tangible gains. But here is what McCarthy is mostly concerned with going into Philadelphia trying to win, though player availability may alter some plans when it comes to COVID.
But then there is that second seed in the NFC playoffs. Green Bay at 13-3 likely wins the first. The second seed is up for grabs right now, the LA Rams and Tampa Bay at 12-4 tied with the one game to go. The Cowboys are fourth at 11-5.
But, if the Cowboys beat the Eagles on Saturday, and then on Sunday the Niners beat the Rams and Carolina beats Tampa Bay, the Cowboys, Rams or Cardinals if they beat Seattle, and Buccaneers would finish in a three-way tie for second at 12-5. And the Cowboys would win the three-way tiebreaker with their better 10-2 NFC record.
What's the gain? Huge. Because if the Cowboys win their first-round playoff game, they'd play a home game in the second round against the second-lowest remaining seeded team. But much more important, they wouldn't have to go to Green Bay, with a first-round bye, in that second round. To me, that's worth playing for.
Otherwise, as say the fourth seed, and if none of the wild-card teams win a first-round game, then it's the Cowboys heading to Green Bay next, a place not so friendly to Dallas in the playoffs over the years, going all the way back to the first time, the Ice Bowl in 1967. And who can forget the last time, the Dez Bryant No-Catch game that 2014 season?
And now the most important reason to play this game to win: The Cowboys need to get better. They haven't reached a level of accomplishment where they can say, ah, we're so good we can blow off practice this week if knowing McCarthy was going to pull the plug on his stars in Philly. And the Cowboys certainly aren't good enough to turn it off Saturday, then turn it on in the first round of the playoffs. Seriously.
All week long, McCarthy has been asked questions about his offense. What's wrong with the running game? What's wrong with Dak Prescott? Does he have the capability to read defenses changing on the fly? Why can't you get the ball to Amari Cooper? What's up with Ezekiel Elliott? And this offensive line?
Well, what better way to work on these shortfalls than a full serious week of practice, then actually playing in another game trying to solve problems. They aren't going to get better stashing their helmets away. Come on, winning the East is no feather in their helmets. Didn't you expect them to do that in a weak NFC East?
And maybe the biggest aspect in need of fixin' is the running game that has run hot and then cold, then hot again and then cold again all season long for 16 games.
McCarthy thinks so.
"The quarterback touches the ball every play, so you have to make him successful," he says, meaning a one-dimensional offense with the passing games leaves the quarterback out there playing singles. "It starts with the run game. We run the football for not only the quarterback. We run the football for the whole team. Our whole team benefits from running the football."
Check out these numbers: When the Cowboys went 6-1 in the first seven games of the season, they ran for 1,064 yards, an average of 152 a game. All was well.
Then the Cowboys hit that speed bump, losing three of the next four games. The rushing yards plummeted, totaling just 338 yards in those four outings, or 84.5 a game. Opponents had enough of Elliott and Tony Pollard running right over teams, along with Dak having the time of day in the pocket, bringing pressure and challenging the Cowboys to run the ball.
Not until, in order, they ran on the Saints, Washington, the Giants and Washington again. The numbers were on an uptick, seemingly solving their problems, totaling 501 yards, or 125 a game.
That is until facing the Arizona Cardinals when the Cowboys couldn't get out of their own way, running the ball 17 times for 45 yards. Not again. Zeke just nine times for 16 yards. Pollard no better, three for nine yards. Dak the leading rushing, five carries for 20 yards.
Now, 10 penalties for 88 yards didn't help, six of those on offense, and four of them coming on third down, three of those nullifying first-down plays and creating third-and-longs that the Cowboys failed to pick up. Also eliminating the possibility for at least nine more plays, at least some of those probably runs.
And then when the Cowboys fall behind 22-7, time to go.
So now we see if the Cowboys can run against a team ranking seventh against the run. More runs the better in this game, thus keeping Dak out of harm's way organically. And how can you fix this problem when struggling to win without at least trying to fix it in a game?
"And I'll say it again, running the football is important, not only to the offense but it's important to the whole football team," McCarthy stressed a second time the other day.
And how do you get better doing that?
That is why McCarthy said on 105.3 The Fan Friday morning, "We've got to win this game Saturday night.
And can't win if you don't play.