No Knee Jerk, 'Boys Are Team to Beat
After what the Cowboys did to the Eagles inside of Jerry Jones' joint over the next three hours, I think Jones ought to procure the stretch diesel truck for his charges. They could use it as they plow down the road to Super Bowl XLIV from the East.
It is true that road goes through New Orleans because the Saints wrapped up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs after getting off to a 13-0 start. It is also true that the Vikings have a better record than the Cowboys by one win, 12-4, and would host a playoff game against the Cowboys should they meet.
But neither the Saints nor Vikings are playing as impressively headed into the postseason, which begins next weekend, as the Cowboys.
Jones' boys, who snatched the NFC East title from the Eagles on Sunday with a 24-0 beat down, are the team to beat in the East to get to Miami next month.
This isn't an utterance caused by my knee suddenly striking my chin. Instead, it is brought about because I've watched Cowboys' opponents in person the past two weekends -- Washington and on Sunday the Eagles -- fail to muster a score, not one point.
It was easy not to make much of the Cowboys' 17-0 win two weekends ago against Washington, no matter that they managed it on the road. The Washington offense for most of the season was, well, an offense to offense.
But it is difficult to overlook the Cowboys stonewalling of the Eagles, which entered Cowboys Stadium as the third-most prolific offense in the league.
"I'm caught off guard by the shutout," Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice admitted.
The Eagles managed only 10 first downs. Their big-play offense had just two big plays. They turned just three of a dozen third downs into first downs. They rushed for 37 yards and Donovan McNabb didn't bust the Mendoza line through the air until the fourth quarter, and only by 23 yards.
The Cowboys kept him off-kilter all day. On one possession, McNabb overthrew DeSean Jackson, who beat Terence Newman deep, and later on same drive he threw incomplete behind Jeremy Maclin streaking across the middle. After one of the Eagles two big plays, a pass and scamper by Jackson inside the Cowboys' 20, McNabb fumbled away a low snap.
The Cowboys sacked McNabb four times, including two by the emerging star, Cowboys' linebacker Anthony Spencer. He's to the Cowboys' defense what Miles Austin is to the Cowboys' offense, a breakout player.
"We were just doing our job; nothing out of the ordinary," Spencer said afterward. "We've gotten better every week."
Pardon the trite mention, but it must be repeated: defense wins championships.
Less than a month ago, the Cowboys were the team anybody would've wanted to meet in the playoffs if the Cowboys got to the playoffs. They'd lost to the Giants in New York and the Chargers at home on back-to-back weekends. They appeared to be doing their annual December swoon.
"I think we had done a lot of good things in those games," Cowboys' tight end Jason Witten said. "But there were 7, 8, 10 plays we'd have liked to have back. You can't make that many mistakes against good teams."
They don't appear to have made that many bad plays in the last three games combined. As such, the Cowboys won a third outing in a row on Sunday. It came courtesy of a franchise first, consecutive shutouts.
Plenty of us have doubted whether Cowboys coach Wade Phillips is a good head coach, but the last few weeks – if not the entire season – have underscored Phillips' worth as a defensive coordinator.
"We've had a defense that, with Wade Phillips' influence, has adapted into what he wants and plays the kind of scheme that he wants to play," Jones said after the game, "and it's beginning to play like the way you'd like a ... defense to play."
And the biggest beneficiary of the Cowboys' stout defense -- which kicked off Sunday as the stingiest in the NFC, and the third-stingiest in the league -- is Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo and his offense. He doesn't have to win games anymore, though he's proved he can. He can be patient and less reckless and marvelously efficient.
"The way they're playing," Witten said of his defensive colleagues, "it puts you in such good field position, besides just keeping points off the board. It's so much easier for us [the offense] to attack."
Indeed, Romo attempted two fewer passes than McNabb but passed for almost 100 more yards, 311. He found Witten for a 10-yard touchdown to open the game and Patrick Crayton in the second quarter for 14 yards for the Cowboys' second touchdown. Romo complimented the air attack by handing off to Marion Barber and Felix Jones 29 times. Each back rushed for 91 yards apiece.
The Cowboys are a balanced team not only on offense but between offense and defense. They can win with either. No other team in the NFC can.
Of course it is also true that next Sunday the Cowboys will have to play the Eagles for a third time this season after beating them twice in the regular campaign. It is supposed to be a very difficult thing to do. The Cowboys were unable to pull off the trifecta against the Giants just two seasons ago and Phillips and Romo are winless in the playoffs.
But the Cowboys earned another game against the Eagles in Jerry's sparkling new joint. And of the many things that can be gleaned from the Cowboys over the past few weeks, one is that they've become well-versed in their recent history and, maybe as a result, haven't been doomed to repeat it. It looks to be only in their rearview mirror.