For all the hype in early fall, the football season builds for the crescendo come winter time, when the pretenders get passed by the contenders.
The Cowboys climbed into the discussion the previous six weeks, a stretch that has brought about the usual coachspeak — needing to stay focused — along with the media spin and the “peak” word.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett refused to call it peaking after the Cowboys beat the Steelers 27-21 in overtime last week to stay in the thick of the playoff hunt.
“We’re banging away; that’s all we’re doing,” Garrett said. “We are trying to get better each and every day.”
Despite what Garrett says, or chooses not to say, the phrase “peaking at the right time” describes the Cowboys’ play of late. With wins in five of the previous six games, Dallas put itself in position to control its own destiny. A 3-5 start, however, left Dallas little wiggle room in the process.
The average preseason expectations projected the Cowboys winning somewhere between 8-10 games. Dallas’ current 8-6 record means the Cowboys are right where most thought they’d be — on the brink of another breakthrough or a hiccup away from failing to live up to the high expectations that come with being “America’s Team.”
At the end of the day, it figures to come down to how well Dallas quarterback Tony Romo plays. For all the passes he completes, Romo has yet to pass through the hierarchy in the NFC East, let alone the entire National Football League.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. Washington rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has the Redskins even with the Giants and Cowboys at 8-6 in a three-way tie for the NFC East lead. Not that Dallas doesn’t feel the heat. For Romo and Co., the playoffs started weeks ago.
“We’ve had to win our last, what feels like six games,” Romo said after Dallas defeated Pittsburgh. “We were 3-5 at one point and from that point on you feel like every game you’re playing is for your playoff life. So our team has had to have that attitude and we’ve taken that approach. We will continue to do that.”
In the meantime, sneaking a look at a division rival seems like a good idea. Manning and the Giants peaked at the right time last year, prevailing in two must-win games to end the regular season, including a victory over Dallas in the finale. The Giants, despite getting outscored in the regular season, carried the momentum into the playoffs, where they won four games and the franchise’s second Super Bowl in a five-year span.
Dallas, currently being outscored on the season, hopes to follow suit. The recent trend suggests a team like Dallas, as opposed to consistent ones such as Atlanta, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, New England and San Francisco, stands a strong chance to win it all. It happened last year with the Giants winning Super Bowl XLVI after a 9-7 regular-season mark. The previous year, the Packers became the first No. 6 seed to win it all in Super Bowl XLV.
“You can legitimately look at how the Giants played last year, what they did at the end of the year and how they took it all the way,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “That’s not unrealistic to think that can happen to you.”
For it to happen, Dallas needs to tackle the next two assignments: beating high-scoring New Orleans at home on Sunday and defeating red-hot Washington, winners of five straight, on the road next week to close out the season.
The Giants’ example gives the Cowboys promise. In 2011, the Giants ranked eighth in total offense (385.1) and fourth in passing offense (295.9). The Cowboys rank eighth in total offense (375.1) and fourth in passing offense (294.8) with two games left. The main difference lies with defense. The Giants ranked fourth last year in total defense, with the Cowboys 18th in the same category.
While much of the onus remains on Romo, he could use help from defense. Last week proved as much, when Brandon Carr’s interception in overtime set up the game-winning field goal, saving an impressive day when Romo threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
“You really can’t get ahead of yourself, you know,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “I thought our team’s done a good job of that. There’s a lot of areas we can improve but everything you want is still in front of you. You’ve got to take it that way.”