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Spagnola: One More Improbable Thought From A Most Improbable Season

SHOULDABININ, Ariz. – Scratching my bald spot while wondering what is more improbable about these 2014 Dallas Cowboys.

         That the Cowboys scored 30 points in Game 6 against Seattle, the team giving up the fewest points in the NFL this season. The 30 matched the most the Seahawks gave up all season long, and the Cowboys were the only team to total more than 377 yards against Seattle's No. 1-ranked defense (401).

         Or that the Cowboys limited Seattle to just 23 points – two touchdowns, three field goals – with one of those touchdowns coming on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown and the other after the Cowboys muffed a punt at their own 14. Along with a field goal following a

fumbled away premature shotgun snap by Dallas at its 20.

         Or that the Cowboys were able to recover from 10-0, 20-17 and 23-20 deficits to become the only team to defeat the Seahawks this season at CenturyLink Field by a score of 30-23, doing what the likes of Denver, Arizona, San Francisco and Green Bay (twice) simply could not do in the Great Northwest. And what only one other team (Arizona) has accomplished now in the past 28 regular-season or postseason games at The Link.

         Or, and give me some leeway on this Super Bowl XLIX aside, that for the sixth time – sixth! – Cowboys Ring of Honor member Charles Haley will be discussed Saturday once again among the final 15 candidates this year for Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. Haley is the absolute last piece to the Cowboys puzzle for winning three Super Bowls in a four-year span and still will be the only player in the 49-year history of the Super Bowl, even after Sunday, to own five Super Bowl rings.

         Darn it, we all shoulda been in Arizona this entire week, documenting not only the Cowboys preparing to face the New England Patriots Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX. but also there when Haley – surely this time, right? – receives the news of becoming one of the guys on Saturday selected for Hall of Fame induction this summer.

         Haven't seen this answer all week, so who knows if the question has even been asked of the NFC rep Seahawks, but the Cowboys, the 12-4 Dallas Cowboys, winners of the NFC East and a first-round playoff game, just had to be the toughest opponent Seattle faced this year over 18 games. Look, the Seahawks (12-4) during the regular season and two rounds of the playoffs ended up playing eight games against playoff teams, including Green Bay and Carolina twice each, along with Arizona twice, Denver and Dallas, and only the Cowboys from that bunch were able to defeat the defending Super Bowl champs. The Patriots now become the ninth with an opportunity Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX.

         Going to tell me, given the chance, that the Cowboys couldn't have gone up to Seattle and beat 'em again?

         Well, OK, I know, I get it. They couldn't because they didn't earn the right, losing that close call in Green Bay (yes, intentional double entendre, no matter what Dean Blandino continues to say since I'm guessing he had a whole lot of say in the decision under the hood to overturn Dez's catch from his New York perch that day) in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs, 26-21.

         So think maybe the Patriots (12-4) – by the way, one of the 26 teams to have lost in Seattle over those past 28 home games, 24-23, in 2012 – have popped in that Cowboys-Seahawks game disc from this season a time or 10 over the past two weeks to see how it's done?

         Just think, the Cowboys scored 30 points against that vaunted Seahawks defense while basically giving away two possessions – the muffed punt and the fumbled away shotgun snap. Why, the Cowboys rushed for 162 yards. Only Kansas City rushed for more this season against Seattle (190).

         But, how about this? The Cowboys and Chiefs were the only teams this season to produce 100-yard rushers against the famed Legion of Boom, Murray going for 115 and Jamal Charles for 159.

         Oh, and I'm sure the Patriots are aware of this: Four of the only six teams to rush for more than 100 yards against Seattle this season won, accounting for every one of their losses so far.

         Very interesting.

         Dallas did most of its damage running a three-receiver set, doing so 39 times in the game, and repeatedly taking advantage of the Seahawks nature of playing a single safety high. The Cowboys had marginal success in their two-tight, two-receiver sets, though produced two huge plays from that formation – the Terrance Williams key 47-yard catch on the third-quarter drive to set up a Dan Bailey 56-yard, game-tying field goal (20-20) and Jason Witten's 3-yard touchdown catch.

         One more thing. On that fourth-quarter, winning-touchdown drive, once the Cowboys reached the Seattle 46 following Williams huge 23-yard foot-drag catch on third down, the Cowboys saddled up their offensive line, lining up in a two-back, two-tight end formation. Murray on three consecutive plays ran for 25, 6 and 15, the final run a touchdown with 3:16 left, powering right through a feeble Richard Sherman tackle attempt at the 2.

         Of all things, the Cowboys, offensively, were more physical than whatever Boom the Seahawks purport.

         Defensively, well, who would have ever thought this Cowboys defense, the much-maligned unit from the start of the season, would go into Seattle and hold a Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch offense to basically two field goals without the help of their special teams or a Cowboys lost fumble?

         How'd they do it?

         Now listen up Patriots, this is key. The Seahawks predominantly lined up in three-receiver sets against Dallas, and the Cowboys countered not unexpectedly in their nickel defense, back then with a healthy Rolando McClain and Justin Durant at linebacker. But here is what the Cowboys did …

         They did not give up the line of scrimmage.

         The Cowboys countered by mostly playing a single-safety high defense, counter to the perception of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli being married to a Tampa-2 defense. Safety Barry Church continually lurked in the box or around the line of scrimmage while J.J. Wilcox played deep in the middle in the field.

         Then, the Cowboys mostly played the receivers and tight ends in man, but made doubly sure they had the line of scrimmage stacked against Lynch, who rushed for only 61 yards. In fact, with the help of the Cowboys offense scoring 30 points and possessing the ball for a whopping 37 minutes, 39 seconds, along with this defense's effectiveness against the run, the Cowboys – let that sink in, the Cowboys defense – simply discouraged the Seahawks from pounding the ball. Lynch received only 10 carries (his second fewest of the season) and Wilson kept it only two times for 12 yards. Yep, his lowest rushing output of the season as well.

         That meant the Cowboys challenged Wilson and the Seahawks to beat them throwing the ball. And, they couldn't. Wilson finished with a season-low 47.6 passer rating, completing only 50 percent of his attempts (14-of-28) for a season-low 126 yards. That limited the Seahawks to a season-low 206 total yards, with much thanks to a swarming defensive front pressuring the third-year quarterback.

         So to the Patriots, there is your blueprint for Sunday. Score points (touchdowns, not field goals, right Green Bay?), turn Lynch into Yeast Mode and make Wilson beat you throwing the ball. Make sure you run the football, be as physical as Seattle's defense wants to be, since nearly every team running for 100 yards this season beat them. And for gosh sakes, don't screw up things on special teams as the Cowboys nearly did and Green Bay most assuredly did.

         Just amazing, isn't it? Of all this improbability we've talked about, how improbable is this in the end: Suggesting the New England Patriots – the New England darn Patriots now – take a page out of the Dallas Cowboys' game plan against the Seattle Seahawks in order to win a Super Bowl?

Five months ago you would have laughed at such a notion.

         Oh, and Charles, it's time.


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