Three Ways the Dallas Cowboys can shake the 8-8 funk
By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys have won three of their last four games. That’s kind of lost in the din of their Thanksgiving Day win over the Oakland Raiders.
That shouldn’t be so surprising. Quarterback Tony Romo’s best record by month is in November. He’s 26-6 after the Raiders win. He’s downright lethal on Thanksgiving Day, as he’s 6-1 as a starter. The Cowboys’ record in November and early December is part of the reason they’ve been in the mix for the NFC East title each of the last two seasons. Consider:
In 2011 the Cowboys started November 3-4. They won their next four games – all in November – to improve to 7-4 by Thanksgiving.
In 2012 the Cowboys were 3-5 on Nov. 4, which was their Sunday night loss to Atlanta. The Cowboys won five of their next six games – which included Romo’s only Thanksgiving Day loss as a starter – to improve to 8-6 on Dec. 16. So the Cowboys actually carried those good November vibrations into early December.
Of course December has been horrible for the Cowboys:
In 2011 the Cowboys lost four of their final five games, including a 31-14 loss to the New York Giants on New Year’s Day that cost the Cowboys the NFC East title.
In 2012 the Cowboys lost their final two games in December, including a 28-18 loss to the Washington Redskins that cost them the NFC East title.
So here the Cowboys sit in 2013, having won three of their last four since losing to Detroit on Oct. 27. In fact, if you want to expand the sample you’ll see that the Cowboys are actually 5-2 since that 51-48 loss to Denver on Oct. 6.
So these Cowboys know how to get themselves into position to win a divisional crown. But they don’t know how to close the deal.
Will that change in 2013? The last four games will offer the proof. The Cowboys have shown that you can lose a playoff berth in December just as easily as you can claim one.
But here are three ways the Cowboys can improve their chances of breaking the 8-8 cycle, winning the NFC East and reaching the postseason for the first time in the Jason Garrett era.
Stay with the run. As outlined a few days ago in First and 10, the Cowboys have had back-to-back 100 yard rushing games for the first time since December of 2011. But that just scratches the surface. The Cowboys are not only running it more in the past two games, they’re more successful running the ball the last two games.
Against the Giants the Cowboys rushed for 107 yards on just 20 carries, a per-carry average of 5.35 yards. But here’s the interesting part. The Cowboys ran the ball just 7 times in the first half for 61 yards. So they actually ran the ball more in the second half than in the first half. But because they were successful doing it the Giants had to respect it and gear up to stop it, opening up passing lanes when quarterback Tony Romo needed them to engineer that game-winning drive.
The numbers were even better against Oakland. The Cowboys rushed for 144 yards, which came to 4.8 yards per carry. This part is almost reaffirming. The Cowboys rushed for just 12 yards on 7 carries in the first half, all by Murray. The other 128 yards and 23 carries came in the second half. We’ve seen this Cowboys team stop running the football after halftime numbers like the ones they put up against Oakland. So the fact that the Cowboys stuck with the run bodes well.
Of course, the Cowboys were dealt a cruel blow when they learned that Lance Dunbar – who rushed for 82 yards and had a huge impact on that Oakland win – is out for the rest of the season after requiring surgery on the posterior lateral corner of his knee. But they can’t run away from the run game as they have in the past. Murray needs to remain a piece of the puzzle and get the football down the stretch. The Cowboys also need the run game as they have potential bad-weather games in Chicago and Washington.
Beat a winning team. The 5-2 mark in the last seven games comes with an asterisk. The Cowboys didn’t beat a team with a winning record during that stretch. In fact, none of the Cowboys’ seven wins in 2013 have come against teams that had winning record when they played them. The closest were Philadelphia (3-3) and the New York Giants (0-0). Of course, the Eagles are 7-5 entering the final month of the season.
This is a trend that bears scrutiny. Since 2011 the Cowboys are 18-2 against teams that are below .500 and are 5-19 against teams that are .500 or better.
The Cowboys’ final four games are against the Bears (6-6), the Packers (5-6-1), the Redskins (3-9) and the Eagles (7-5). If the averages hold, the Cowboys would finish 9-7. If you’re a Cowboys fan you have to hate the fact that the Eagles are the Week 17 opponent, given the Cowboys’ recent history in season finales.
That’s why the Cowboys not only have to take care of their under-.500 opponents, but they must also score a win over either the Bears or the Eagles, both of which right now are either at or above .500. It’s something they haven’t done this season and the Cowboys will likely need that extra win, especially if it leads to a Wild Card berth. The Cowboys can’t lurch into this stretch run. There is so little margin for error.
Oh, and since the reorganization of the divisions in 2002, teams that win 10 games make the postseason about 95 percent of the time.
Have a plus-turnover ratio. The past two seasons the Cowboys have famously lost their Week 17 contest, a game that, if won, would have meant an NFC East title. The Cowboys have to correct that this December. The good news so far is that the Cowboys one of the league leaders in turnover ratio at plus-12, thanks to a defense that, while not stingy with the yards, has created a turnover in all but one game this year. Meanwhile, the Romo-led offense has committed only 13 turnovers.
For the next four weeks that ratio will be put to the test. If the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East, they’ll have to reverse the trend of the past two seasons, specifically the last four games.
In 2011 the Cowboys were a minus-1 in turnover ratio in the final four games, including a minus-2 in the finale against the New York Giants. In 2012 the Cowboys were a minus-3 in turnover ratio in the final four games, including a minus-3 in the finale against the Washington Redskins. That’s five combined turnovers in the Cowboys’ last two season finales. The opponents committed no turnovers.
The Cowboys are 4-2 this season in games in which they have a plus turnover ratio over their opponent. It’s certainly no guarantee, but the Cowboys have a solid track record thus far.
If the Cowboys can put these three things together, there’s a good chance they’ll have a winning December and a playoff berth for the first time since 2009.