Can we finally trust the Cowboys to make a — gasp! — playoff run?
Can we finally trust the Dallas Cowboys after Sunday night’s 38-27 road win over Philadelphia?
The ultimate let-down franchise doesn’t get off that easy after almost two decades of disappointments.
Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick knows it, too.
“It ain’t time to start crowning or saying what this says about the team,” Scandrick warned inside an upbeat but relatively subdued Cowboys locker room after his team had taken the NFC East lead.
“We just need to keep our heads down, have tunnel vision and move onto the next (one).”
There are still two games left for Dallas to screw up and miss the playoffs. But it’s performances like the one against Philadelphia that make you want to believe the 2014 Cowboys are truly different.
Past Cowboys teams — most notably the ones that fell in Week 17 the past three seasons to lose the division title and miss the playoffs — might have collapsed after squandering a three-touchdown advantage like Dallas did Sunday, the Eagles finishing off the comeback in the third quarter with a one-yard Darren Sproles touchdown run to put Philadelphia up 24-21. But the Cowboys responded with a methodical eight-play, 78-yard scoring drive capped by DeMarco Murray’s two-yard touchdown run.
“We never lost focus. That was big,” Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant said. “We never got uncomfortable.”
It was Bryant who was in a comfort zone all night, repeatedly getting the better of Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher. The two were separated by teammates during pregame warm-ups after a face-to-face confrontation of which Bryant slyly allowed that “a couple of words were exchanged” — without offering additional details.
Regardless of what was said, Bryant backed up his talk with six catches for 114 yards, including a career-high three touchdowns from quarterback Tony Romo. Fletcher was beaten on all three in man-on-man coverage, including beautiful Romo scoring lobs of 26 and 25 yards as Bryant got open running down the sideline. Bryant’s final score gave Dallas a 35-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“I just didn’t make the plays I needed to make,” Fletcher said. “It’s something that I have to live with.”
Fletcher’s struggles have persisted throughout the season. So have many of the other problems that recurred for the Eagles on Sunday night. The LeSean McCoy-led rushing attack couldn’t get on track (just 75 yards on 21 carries as a team). The offensive line surrendered four sacks of quarterback Mark Sanchez, who compounded his unit’s problems with two second-half interceptions. Even an Eagles strong point — special teams — suffered a major meltdown when Josh Huff couldn’t field the opening kickoff. Dallas recovered the fumble and scored its first touchdown little more than two minutes into the game on a one-yard Murray run.
“We will look at the film and there will be a lot of plays that we were a step away or one mistake here,” Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin said.
The performance of both teams was radically different from less than three weeks ago when Dallas suffered a 33-10 home loss to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day. Such a dreadful showing had naysayers predicting the Cowboys would begin another December slide into NFL oblivion.
Resiliency, though, is a trait Dallas has uncharacteristically displayed throughout the team’s first season with double-digit wins since 2009. Head coach Jason Garrett’s charges rebounded from the Eagles loss with a 41-28 rout of Chicago. That win helped Dallas improve to 6-0 on the road. In that stretch, the Cowboys overcame a 10-0 deficit to beat Seattle and rallied from down 21-0 to top St. Louis.
“There’s a lot of poise,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “Coach Garrett does a great job of stressing, ‘Play through success. Play through adversity.’ That message sticks within our team.”
Romo’s back problems. Injuries to key defensive personnel. Off-field distractions like talk of Bryant’s contract status or comments from team owner Jerry Jones that can generate self-induced controversies.
The Cowboys have risen above all of it — so far.
“Before the season even started, we felt different,” Bryant said. “The biggest thing is we stayed together and played together. That’s how you win games.
“We’re more of a family. We respect one another and we try to bring the best out of each other. That’s the difference.”
Nobody is happier to see this than Witten. He and Romo are the longest-tenured Cowboys players at 12 seasons. Witten has experienced plenty of personal highs while becoming one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history. But the lows of not experiencing equal team success have gnawed at him through the years.
“We’ve grown,” said Witten, who had a team-high seven catches for 69 yards against the Eagles. “We’re committed together. We’ve worked our tails off since (the offseason).
“It’s past experiences. Coming up short in Week 17, we’ve reflected on that. You’ve got to go execute. It’s drives like that (in the third quarter). Nobody had to be a hero. Just do our job.”
The Cowboys now have to finish the job. A challenging home game this coming Sunday against Indianapolis (10-4) is followed by the regular-season finale at Washington, which shouldn’t be considered an automatic win despite the Redskins’ struggles. One of Washington’s three victories this season came on the road against Dallas in Week 8.
If the Cowboys win their final two matchups, landing one of the NFC’s top two playoff seeds and receiving a first-round bye is possible. A split would cost Dallas the NFC East title should Philadelphia (9-5) win its remaining two contests on the road against the Redskins (3-11) and New York Giants (5-9). Going 1-1 or 0-2 could very well keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, largely because Dallas wouldn’t fare well in most playoff tiebreaker scenarios.
But Witten believes this Cowboys squad is better prepared for this home stretch than in previous seasons.
“This team has done a really good job of taking that ‘one-game’ mentality,” he said. “No matter how big a win this is . . . We have blinders on. We have narrow focus. This is the way this team has played. We know we have to earn it. We’ve got that mindset where we’ve got to outwork (opponents) and out-execute them.
“We’re just a bunch of dogs.”
Now it’s time to finally catch the rabbit and move onto the race that truly matters — the one held in the postseason for a spot in Super Bowl 49.