DALLAS — When the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving, it felt like their season was all but over.
The embarrassing 41-16 holiday loss dropped Dallas to 3-8 and appeared to severely hinder their playoff chances even within a historically terrible NFC East. To make matters worse, they also lost arguably their best player when lineman Zack Martin’s season ended with an injury on that day.
And that wasn’t even the low point of the season.
The next game felt even worse as the Cowboys were manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens and any shot at winning the division were almost gone. Dallas would surely need to win out and get some help to give their Week 17 matchup with the New York Giants any meaning.
Somehow, that’s exactly what has happened as everything has fallen into place for the Cowboys. Washington and the Giants have faltered, and Dallas has started winning, leaving the door cracked open with the Cowboys poised to bust through it for an unlikely NFC East title and a postseason berth.
Of course, the franchise still needs help. The path to winning the division is simple, but Dallas does not solely control its own fate. The Cowboys must beat the Giants and hope the Football Team loses to the Eagles on Sunday night to claim a playoff spot.
To pull off the minor miracle and win the division – something that seemed almost impossible a few weeks ago – the Cowboys must continue to do what they’ve done well in the last three games.
Covet and convert takeaways
Once one of the worst defenses in the league at forcing turnovers, the Cowboys have turned things around in the last three games. After creating just 11 turnovers in their first 12 games, Dallas has 10 takeaways in their last three weeks.
What’s even better, an offense that used to give the ball away has just one turnover in their last three wins.
In addition, the Cowboys are taking it one step further in the right direction as they are converting those mistakes into points. Dallas has scored 48 points off of takeaways in the last three weeks.
Be explosive on offense
The Cowboys were initially struggling without starting quarterback Dak Prescott under center following their franchise quarterback’s season-ending injury in Week 5. However, with the defense's recent ability to create takeaways and favorable field position, the offense has gotten back into an attacking groove. Overall the team has scored at least 30 points in each of the three games of their winning streak.
Another catalyst for the offensive uptick is Dallas has been getting the ball to their playmakers and letting them make explosive plays. The Cowboys had six big plays against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16, including three that went for over 50 yards, which was a season-high for the offense.
If you include the 19-yard touchdown run from rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb to seal the game, it’s easy to see how the Cowboys are finally learning how their offense can work with backup QB Andy Dalton at the helm.
Win the hidden yardage battle
The special teams unit is another place where the Cowboys have improved in the last three weeks which has given the team a boost. After struggling mightily against the Ravens, where he made only one of four kicks, Greg Zuerlein has been money in the bank, missing just once, from 60-yards out. Zuerlein has made eight of his nine field-goal attempts, including a clutch kick in the 4th quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in a Week 15 win.
New punter Hunter Niswander has also played a big role turning around the special teams for the Cowboys. In the last three games, Niswander has had five punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Forcing teams to go the length of the field to score points has been a big reason the defense has improved their ability to take the ball away. It’s hard to sustain drives and the further you have to go, the odds are that the defense can make a play. Niswander has made life tougher on opposing offenses and given the Dallas defense a boost.
Play with a renewed energy
For most of the season, it was easy to question the effort and energy the Cowboys were playing with. That has not been the case in the last three games.
There’s been a noticeable effort in the way the Cowboys have played, which is a testament to the job Mike McCarthy and his staff has done in reinvigorating the motivation of the squad.
Perhaps it’s because they are winning games now, but it’s been a joy to watch this team during the winning streak and admire the way they fight on every play. It’s a chicken or the egg situation for sure, but it feels like this is a much different team than the one we watched earlier in the season.
Do you see the Cowboys have learned enough from their tumultuous 2020 season to come away with a win in Week 17? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.