FRISCO, Texas – So starts the Cowboys Mission Impossible, 1 p.m. Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., at TIAA Bank Stadium against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yep. At 10-3, with four games remaining in the 17-game 2022 NFL season, in second place in the NFC East, two games behind the leading Philadelphia Eagles at 12-1 and already having lost to their division foes, 26-17, eight games ago, here is the deal for these Cowboys:
This likely is their mission should they choose to accept it.
That's right, win every one of their final four games, including beating the Eagles on Christmas Eve at AT&T Stadium and hope to have a chance of winning the division to become the first team to repeat as NFC East champs since the Eagles themselves last did so from 2001-04. You realize that was 18 years ago? So long ago a person born in 2004 already has likely graduated from high school?
But think about this: Winning four straight at any point of a season is daunting enough. But take into consideration the Cowboys head into Jacksonville on Sunday already riding a four-game winning streak. That would mean, using preconceived logic, and knowing the Eagles finish with the Bears, Cowboys, Saints and Giants, the Cowboys would have to finish the season on an eight-game winning streak to even have a chance to win the NFC East.
And then … and then … even if they do, the Cowboys will need someone else to beat the Eagles – most likely the Giants (7-5-1) if we consider the Bears are 3-10 and the Saints 4-9 – to let's say finish tied for first at 14-3 with Philadelphia. And since the two teams will have split under this scenario if the Cowboys win out, the next tiebreaker would be division record.
Now then, if following this scenario, thinking the Giants have the best chance to beat the Eagles, the Cowboys would finish 5-1 in the East and the Eagles would be 3-3, since their lone loss so far has been to Washington.
Whew, that's a lot of ifs and buts to digest, a whole lot of speculation. And what the Cowboys must comprehend if we're following this logic in an illogical NFL, especially this season, is this:
You can't win eight in a row if you don't first win five straight.
That means beating Jacksonville this Sunday, and why, if the Cowboys indeed are good enough, there can be no taking nothing for granted against a 5-8 Jaguars team. A must win.
Because if they lose, then the importance of Christmas Eve at AT&T Stadium is significantly diminished. A loss would mean, assuming the Eagles beat the Bears on Sunday, Dallas would be three games back with three to go, and even if the Cowboys should beat the Eagles after having lost to Jacksonville, they still would be two games back with two to go.
That probably isn't going to turn out well, since at that point not only would the Cowboys have to beat Tennessee and Washington, the Eagles would have to close out the season losing three straight for the Cowboys to then get the nod on a tiebreaker for the East title.
So, heck yeah, the pressure is on to beat the Jags. Common sense tells you Sunday is a must win for the Cowboys. Plus, a win would at the very least clinch a playoff spot in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07, to go along with already having established consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1995-96.
That is why what the Cowboys have accomplished so far, the double-digit wins and a good chance of making the playoffs, has not really impressed head coach Mike McCarthy, saying earlier this week of the 10-3 record, "I understand the importance of double-digit wins … but I mean, I expect to go to the playoffs.
"To me, this is the expectation. I didn't discuss this (10 wins) with the team. This is where we're supposed to be."
But yet, there still is more meat on the bone. A division title. Clinching a first-round home playoff game, and who knows since the Cowboys are tied with Minnesota for the second-best record in the NFC (and NFL), overtaking the Eagles likely would mean earning the top seed in the NFC and the first-round bye plus the homefield advantage throughout the playoffs that comes with it.
"I think anytime you start looking forward to this scenario or that scenario, you get caught up in – I think the good thing about this game Sunday, and hats off to Houston, they did a great job but it was a little like, hey, we've got to lock back into this home stretch to take care of business," Zack Martin says.
That means beating Jacksonville. And don't go to sleep on the Jags just because of their 5-8 record. They have won two of the past three, and after getting off to that disastrous 2-6 start, the two wins are over division leaders Baltimore (9-4) and the AFC South's Tennessee (7-6) this past Sunday.
And quarterback Trevor Lawrence is playing like that guy at Clemson, like the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. Consider in their last five games Lawrence has put up a 111.7 QB rating, completing 71.8 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. And get this: Lawrence has only been sacked 23 times this season, but not a once in six of their games, including this past Sunday in the 36-22 win over the Titans. To think the Texans pitched a sack shutout of the Cowboys, the first the time that's happened to a Dan Quinn defense here in 25 games.
"They actually are a very talented football team; they've got a bunch of talented guys" is Martin's scouting assessment. "I think last week, if we use it the right way and take out from that a lesson, it will be a great positive."
This predicament of needing to win eight straight, though a tougher one, reminds me of the 1991 and 1993 Cowboys seasons. In 1991, the Cowboys were 6-5, and not really close to qualifying for the playoffs after losing two straight and three of four. But they went on a five-game winning streak to end the season, earning a wild-card playoff berth at 11-5.
Then in 1993, the defending Super Bowl champs got off to an 0-2 start, then lost two straight the Sunday before Thanksgiving and on Thanksgiving to stand 7-4 with five games to go. That's when head coach Jimmy Johnson read them the riot act, demanding his team run the table the final five games just to win the East and earn homefield advantage for the playoffs. Put the pressure on them. Worked them hard.
And, by golly, the Cowboys won them all, but not until beating the Giants in the final game of the season, and in overtime at that, 16-13, eliciting one of radio voice Brad Sham's famous calls on the winning field goal, "God bless you, Eddie Murray." Yep, all that to just win the East over New York, and at 12-4 consequently a first-round playoff bye and homefield advantage, too, that they put to use by wiping out San Francisco again in back-to-back NFC title games, but this time a much easier task at Texas Stadium.
So, understand the odds the Cowboys must overcome to not only win the final four games, but to stretch that winning streak to eight straight to just have a chance of winning the East.
"I think guys know, and we've talked about it, again," Martin says of the task at hand. "I look at it, the best way to do it is that one game at a time (mentality). Don't look forward, let's take care of business this week, beat this Jacksonville team on the road and then we'll worry about next (Saturday).
"I don't even look at it that way. I don't even know how many we've got to win. I don't look at it that way."
Because if you start focusing on not only winning these final four games, meaning lumping those on top of already having won the last four, the thought of winning eight straight might become overwhelming.
Right? So no other way for the Cowboys to approach this task of potentially winning the NFC East but taking it one game at a time. Win one straight, then win one straight, then win another …
You get the idea, the only plausible way of making that seemingly Mission Impossible possible.