FRISCO, Texas – It's how funny superstitious we tend to get about football.
It'd be one thing if we were playing in the game. If Byron Jones thinks it helps him to put on his left cleat before his right cleat, then by all means have at it. Do anything that gets you in the right frame of mind to succeed.
But the rest of us? It's hysterical.
I know there's a diehard Cowboys fan in Tennessee right now who thinks his team has won 11-straight games because he wears his lucky jacket on game day. Honestly, I don't even have to look that far. My friend and coworker Bryan Broaddus probably thinks the Cowboys are winning because of the hideous yellow sneakers he insists on wearing every day.
It's part of the fun of rooting for a football team, so it doesn't bother me – even if I think it's nonsense.
But my main point is that, in the midst of this winning streak, people seem so superstitious. Any time you talk about the big picture – playoffs, Super Bowl – everyone gets a little squeamish. They don't want to look beyond the present.
Again, it's a strategy that I understand for Jason Garrett and his players.
But it's just amusing to me that throughout the months of October and November, there seemed to be this looming anxiety about messing with success. Whether it's the two-month quarterback controversy or the weekly challenge to rush the passer, it's almost felt as if the Cowboys' playoff hopes were a mirage that might vanish if you talked about them.
I'm guilty of this myself:
But now it's December, and this is looking like a reality. Not only is it guaranteed that the Cowboys will be in the playoffs, it's becoming clearer every week that the road to the Super Bowl does in fact lead through Dallas.
A win against New York this weekend locks up the NFC East for the Cowboys. Two more wins, regardless of what anyone else does, locks up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Even if Dallas doesn't manage to get a win against the Giants on Sunday, they need only win two of their three remaining games to accomplish their goals.
If you're superstitious, you're not going to appreciate me saying this – but too bad. At this point in the season, it would take a total collapse to keep the Cowboys from locking up the NFC.
Nobody would've believed that in August, but that's where we're at.
Here's some more stuff that's on my mind in Week 14:
1.If you're a Cowboys fan, I shouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know, but it's remarkable how the arrival of Dak Prescott has transformed this roster from "a team with a closing championship window" to "a team that is built to contend for years to come."
Take a look at the offense, which has been the engine of this team's success, and be amazed:
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are playing on affordable rookie contracts, neither of which can be renegotiated until after the third year.
Dak's top receivers – Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten – are all under contract through 2019, 2018 and 2017, respectively.
Perhaps most importantly, the offensive line is going nowhere. Tyron Smith is under contract for seven – SEVEN – more seasons. Travis Frederick just signed his big-money deal. Zack Martin has one more season on his rookie deal, with a team option for another after that. He's widely expected to get his big contract in 2017. Doug Free is signed to his veteran deal through 2017, and Chaz Green is locked in for another year after that.
It's true that Ron Leary is scheduled to enter free agency this spring. But his competition at left guard, La'el Collins, has another year remaining on his deal – and he'll be under club control as a restricted free agent in 2018.
The Cowboys have to figure out what to do about WR No. 2 -- whether that's re-signing Terrance Williams or Brice Butler, or drafting a new one. They could also stand to address their depth at tight end, given Witten's age and James Hanna's knee injury.
Other than that, though? This strength of this Cowboys team is intact for the foreseeable future.
2.With that in mind, what about the weak part of this team? For as much criticism as it gets, the defense has potential for a rapid turnaround.
The secondary is troublesome. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox are all heading for free agency. Something needs to be done about that. But fortunately, none of those guys should be terribly expensive to bring back, should the Cowboys want to. And if they don't want to, none of those are what I'd call crippling losses. Meanwhile, the remaining trio of Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones and Anthony Brown is a solid building block.
Sean Lee is here for the foreseeable future. Anthony Hitchens has one year remaining on his rookie deal, and Damien Wilson is only in Year 2. Obviously, there is the tantalizing wait on Jaylon Smith's recovery. If he regains full function in his injured leg, this defense is poised to take massive strides forward.
The pass rush has needed upgrading for some time. Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton is a serviceable group to start with, while 2017 will be an all-important contract year for DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys have to decide what to do about impending free agents like Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford and David Irving.
Most important in all of this is that the Cowboys' personnel on offense should allow them to focus their attentions on the defense in the draft. They might be picking late in the round, but they should still be capable of finding one or two starter-caliber players in the 2017 NFL Draft.
It'd be foolish to predict the draft haul in December, but it sure seems logical to think the Cowboys could target upgrades at both corner and pass rusher this spring. They're poised to gradually add young talent to this unit, just as they did with their offense.
3.That obviously doesn't account for several big questions. What will the Cowboys do with Tony Romo, not to mention his massive cap hit? How will the Cowboys finagle their salary cap in 2017?
The Cowboys haven't been big spenders in free agency in quite some time, and I'd expect that to continue in 2017. Jerry Jones loves to say that they know how to manage themselves with just the right amount of cap space to accomplish their goals, and that's largely been true. It might not be sexy, but that strategy has helped them rebuild this team through the draft – and then re-sign those draft picks with the available funds.
It's way too early for anyone to know how exactly the cap fun shakes out. But if there's one thing I do know, it's that they'll make it work. Whether via contract restructures or tough roster decisions – likely both – they'll make it work.
4.Speaking of Tony Romo, I'm so intrigued by the opportunity the Cowboys might have sitting in front of them this month. Assuming there is no total collapse, and the Cowboys lock things up with games to spare, I think they'd be foolish not to get Romo some playing time.
Jerry Jones seemed to hint at that this week, when he said "I do want Tony to be ready to go in case that Dak should have an issue, health-wise."
Spare me the sob story about disrespecting Romo by inserting him into a meaningless game, and just bear with me for a sec:
The guy hasn't played meaningful snaps since Thanksgiving 2015, and he has left three of his last four games with injuries. If the Cowboys do in fact need to call on Romo in the playoffs, it'd be beneficial for him to have a chance to knock the rust off, don't you think?
On top of that, don't you think Romo wants a chance to showcase himself to the rest of the NFL? For that matter, shouldn't the Cowboys want the opportunity to showcase him? The market for Romo's services could improve dramatically if he can prove to the league he can be healthy and productive in real games.
I see it as a win-win-win. If the Cowboys clinch, they can protect their starting quarterback while at the same time readying their backup – should they need him. Simultaneously, they'd be improving both their 2017 prospects and Romo's by giving him a chance to perform.
5.Back to 2016. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the Cowboys' current pass rush, because that's like worrying about a test you already took. What's done is done.
It's December, and by this point in the NFL season you are what you are. The Cowboys are capable of getting sacks on occasion, but they are not an elite unit. They are not going to get significantly better between now and the postseason. They'll simply have to make do.
6.You know what I can worry about? Takeaways.
It's not getting as much publicity as it did last year, but the Cowboys are once again bad at generating takeaways. They have managed just one takeaway since Oct. 30, and it came last week – on special teams, not defense. They have 11 takeaways on the season, which is only better than three atrocious teams – the Bears, Jets and Jaguars.
You don't need to be great on defense to take the ball away from the opponent. For evidence, look no further than the 2014 Dallas Cowboys – a statistically average defense that finished No. 15 in points allowed per game and No. 19 in yards allowed per game, but took the ball away a staggering 31 times.
Five different players on that 2014 defense had multiple interceptions, compared to just one this year. Dallas defenders also recovered 17 fumbles in 2014, as opposed to seven right now.
The numbers aren't great, but they're fixable. Byron Jones demonstrated how agonizingly close the difference between an interception and an incompletion can be last week in Minnesota.
As the games get harder, this defense is going to have to find a way to convert those opportunities into takeaways. If they can't, they're going to have their hands full with this league's better teams.
7.I'm really happy to see that the NFL resolved its issue with the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans and will allow those teams to participate in the "My Cleats My Cause" campaign this weekend.
As often as I disagree with decision-making at the league level, I don't think even they could have screwed that situation up.
My next qualm is this: if "My Cleats My Cause" was such a rousing success – and it certainly appeared to be – why stop there? This was a fantastic way to help worthy causes, and it also made the Week 13 games fun and visually interesting. Perhaps what I liked the most was that the causes were personalized toward the players – they were literally showcasing things that mattered to them.
Maybe I'm just an idealist, but if players want to wear cleats, gloves, towels or anything else to promote a good cause, I'm all for it.
8.Anthony Brown wasn't a member of the Dallas Cowboys when Odell Beckham Jr. made his famous one-handed catch in 2014 – but he's still plenty familiar with it. Asked if the topic ever comes up among Cowboy DB's, Brown had a quote that I think will resonate with a lot of Cowboys fans:
"I tend to forget about it. They lost the game, so it really don't matter," Brown said. "It's just a catch. He made a good play, and you got to move on."
That more or less echoes what Cowboys fan have been saying for two years, when Beckham became a national celebrity off the strength of his jaw-dropping, 43-yard touchdown grab. The Cowboys won the game, 31-28, which tends to get overshadowed in the conversation.
9.At the same time: boo hoo, Cowboys fans. Cry me a river.
The Cowboys won the game, won the division and went on to the playoffs. In light of that fact, why does it bother you so much that people talk about the catch? It's one of the most astounding things I've ever seen happen in person. Of course people think it's cool.
And sure. Maybe I'm biased because I happen to have attended the same college as Mr. Beckham – but I honestly don't think so. I'm a fan of insane catches that defy physics and remind you why you love football, regardless of who's making them. I took two weeks out of my summer to watch, dissect, rank and write about all of Dez Bryant's touchdowns for that very reason.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: you can love the Cowboys and hate the Giants and still acknowledge that that catch was freaking awesome and cool. It's totally possible, I promise.
Ok, that's all I say about that.
10.Whenever I have a bad round of picks, I like to remind myself that I'm 11-1 picking the Cowboys' games this season. Combine that with my 12-4 record from last season, and I'm doing pretty damn well on that front.
Unfortunately, this is the part where I pick the rest of the league, and I went an uninspiring 9-6 last week. So, to summarize: I know that the team I cover is really good, but I don't know much about the rest of the NFL.
Good to know.
Oakland over KANSAS CITY
Pittsburgh over BUFFALO
Denver over TENNESSEE
Washington over PHILADELPHIA
Arizona over MIAMI
CAROLINA over San Diego
Cincinnati over CLEVELAND
DETROIT over Chicago
INDIANAPOLIS over Houston
Minnesota over JACKSONVILLE
SAN FRANCISCO over New York Jets
TAMPA BAY over New Orleans
Atlanta over LOS ANGELES
Seattle over GREEN BAY
NEW ENGLAND over Baltimore