FRISCO, Texas — DeMarcus Lawrence boarded this train two weeks ago.
“Nobody in this league is elite,” the Dallas Cowboys defensive end concluded Nov. 8 after the Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a 24-19 win. Undefeated Pittsburgh was trailing Dallas until 2 minutes, 14 seconds remained on the JerryWorld Jumbotron clock.
If this hype train geared up for departure before the Cowboys’ bye week, consider it rolling full steam ahead as the 2-7 Cowboys game plan this week’s visit to 4-5 Minnesota.
“First things first,” Lawrence said Wednesday after practice at The Star. “Don’t ever get this twisted: We’re a good team. It’s all about winning games at the end of the day, but we’re a good team.
“I feel like we deserve to still be in this thing and we can make a pretty good run.”
By most objective measures, the Cowboys are not a good football team. They’ve won 22 percent of contests, the last of which came Oct. 11, when quarterback Dak Prescott awaited emergency ankle surgery at a local hospital as kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a 34-yard field goal against the New York Giants as time expired. The Cowboys have turned the ball over 20 times, exceeding both their 2019 giveaway total and 30 NFL teams’ marks this year. And the Cowboys have ceded 32.2 points per game, the worst in the NFL.
And yet, coaches and players are not shying away from the reality that a disastrous NFC East may remain up for grabs. Head coach Mike McCarthy said he might have shied away from using that as motivation earlier in his career, but not now.
“The bulk of our focus and the majority of the messaging is really on self-improvement,” McCarthy said Monday. “But yeah, I think it's only obvious what the four records are in the division and winning the division and what's in front of you.
“It's obvious the state of our division.”
POWER RANKINGS: Surging Cardinals, Dolphins crack top 10
WON AND DONE? Would one win ruin Jets' shot at Trevor Lawrence?
NFL NEWSLETTER: Sign up now to get football news delivered to your inbox
‘Everything is ahead of us’
The NFC East pecking order begins with 3-5-1 Philadelphia. The Eagles’ three wins came against opponents — Dallas, Washington and San Francisco — who boast a combined 9-20 record. Their next five opponents — Cleveland, Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona — have each won at least six of nine.
The 3-7 New York Giants and 2-7 Washington Football Team follow next. The Giants await four 6-3 teams: Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland and Baltimore. Washington’s schedule is more manageable, though the 9-0 Steelers and 6-3 Seahawks still threaten.
Then there’s the Cowboys’ docket. Only Baltimore has won more than it’s lost, Dallas’ combined opponents faring 24-39-2 compared to upcoming Eagles opponents at 36-27. The Cowboys will face each hapless NFC East team again, twice at home. This week’s trip to Minnesota poses the biggest threat left aside from a Thursday night contest at Baltimore.
An upset at Minnesota — which would constitute McCarthy’s first road victory as Cowboys coach — could set the tone.
“It is kind of crazy to be 2-7 and still have a chance,” running back Ezekiel Elliott admitted Wednesday. But “everything is ahead of us.”
Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys — despite a 2-7 record — still are very much in contention for a division title. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)
‘This will not be a repeat’
The Cowboys have outlined their keys to upsetting Minnesota. Protect the ball. Protect their quarterback. And attack as a gradually jelling run defense facing a star in Dalvin Cook
Dallas has turned over the ball each of the last eight games, but expects to return five offensive linemen for a consecutive game after months without that luxury. The Cowboys are hopeful veteran Andy Dalton will beactivated after three weeks of concussion and COVID-19 protocols. They expect Dalton to expand the playbook more than rookie seventh-rounder Ben DiNucci and journeyman Garrett Gilbert were able to in each of their NFL debuts.
Special teams and defense, McCarthy says, have achieved the play speed and style the last two games that he desires. That wasn’t the case across the first seven games when the Cowboys defense ceded an average of 178 rushing yards and 34.7 points. The worst defensive performance came in a 49-38 loss on Oct. 4 to the Browns, an offense with similar zone run concepts to what Minnesota will bring. Cleveland gashed Dallas for 307 rushing yards. The Cowboys, in the third quarter, trailed by 27 at home.
Lawrence acknowledged that Cook is an “even more elite back” with a punishing ability to cut and capitalize on running lanes. Cook is averaging a league-best 142.9 yards per game from scrimmage along with 13 touchdowns in eight games.
But “this will not be a repeat of the Browns game,” Lawrence said. “We’re a different team, we’re playing totally different, energy is totally different.”
After letting up more than 200 rushing yards in three of four games, the Cowboys limited Philadelphia to 119 on Nov. 1 then Pittsburgh to 46. They’ve shuffled defensive tackles and regained two injured linebackers, helping improve poor run fits in what too often looked like individuals playing defense rather than a team effort. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan believes his unit has at last adjusted to a new scheme, allowing defenders to play more instinctively. Energy and effort have improved in recent weeks. Football IQ, too.
The combination is one that doesn’t lift the Cowboys beyond their rightful underdog status but does breed confidence among a team anxious to break its losing streak.
“I don’t think we really need much motivation,” Elliott said. “We're competitors. No one likes to go out there and lose football games. I think it's been what, a month since we won a football game? It sucks. It sucks.
“We're hungry and we're going to go figure out how to win.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
Source: Read Full Article