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Friday, December 21, 2012
NFC East race: The case for the Cowboys

By Dan Graziano

This is the third in a three-part series looking at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and making the case for why that team will win the division. The case for the New York Giants appeared here Wednesday, and the case for the Washington Redskins appeared here Thursday. Today,  we look at the Dallas Cowboys, who have won five of their last six games, and the reasons to believe they will keep it going and win the division.

As we have been saying here since training camp, it's important when evaluating this year's Cowboys to try and throw out everything you think you know about the Cowboys.

Jason Garrett
Character and chemistry appear to be fueling a playoff charge for Jason Garrett's Cowboys.
They entered this season with the same high hopes they and every other team take into every season in an NFL in which last-place teams routinely turn into first-place teams overnight. But the broader focus in Dallas over the past couple of years has been on building a lasting foundation for a team that can contend year in and year out. Their draft was future-year focused -- they used their first two picks on a brilliantly talented cornerback they saw as a foundation piece instead of getting two players who could plug 2012 holes, and their mid-round picks were spent on developmental players.

Everybody I talked to in Oxnard, from Stephen Jones to Jason Garrett to Jason Witten, spoke about  building around young leaders such as Sean Lee on defense and DeMarco Murray on offense. The Cowboys were operating as a calm, level-headed, big-picture organization.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that future they're trying to build in Dallas. After a 3-5 start, the Cowboys have won five of their past six games and moved into a first-place tie in the NFC East with two weeks to go. All they have to do is beat the Saints at home this week and the Redskins in Washington next week, and they are division champions. The reason to believe this is possible has less to do with how hot they are right now and everything to do with the players having bought into that vision that Garrett and the rest of the organization has been selling.

There is elite-level talent in certain spots on this roster, to be sure. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing like Pro Bowlers at the outside linebacker spots. Tony Romo is playing some of the best, most consistent and responsible quarterback of his life. Dez Bryant has been one of the very best wide receivers in the league for the past month and a half and is winning fans inside and outside his locker room by insisting on playing these final weeks in spite of a broken left index finger. Murray, in the three games he's played since his return from a foot injury, is running like the tough, young leader they believe him to be.

But this Cowboys season is at least as much about what they've overcome as it is about where they're great. The losses of Lee and fellow inside linebacker Bruce Carter left the defense thin in the middle, and they've been without safety Barry Church, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive end Kenyon Coleman for large chunks of this season as well. They beat the Steelers last week without all of those guys and without that talented first-round cornerback, Morris Claiborne, who had a concussion and couldn't play. The Josh Brent drunk-driving tragedy that took the life of practice squad defensive lineman Jerry Brown has deprived them of the services of Brent, who was playing well, and was certainly the kind of event that's capable of throwing a team off of its preferred path.

Through it all, though, these Cowboys have stayed focused and determined and calm. I don't think the tragedy galvanized them, because I don't think they've looked any different since the tragedy than they did before it. They have, for some time now, been showing a great deal of resolve -- an ability to stay in and win games that, in the past, they very often found ways to lose. I think that shows you a group of players that believes they're all in this together, building something as a team that they believe can be great.

Whether they win this division, take a wild-card spot or come up short this year, Cowboys fans have to like the direction of the franchise. They have to like that these players, many of whom have long been maligned for coming up small in big spots, are playing tougher and smarter and more clutch than they ever have before. When the Cowboys gather next summer for training camp, many of the same old questions people always seem to have about them will have been answered by the way they played the second half of this season.

In the meantime, though, they may just win the division. And if they do, that resolve, toughness and team dynamic that should help the Cowboys in the long run is exactly the reason why. Garrett's bunch has a seriousness of purpose it hasn't always had. It focuses not on what might have been had there not been so many injuries but rather what can be if the next pass is completed, the next big tackle made. The Cowboys have been trying to build something for the future, and there have been aspects of the team this year (the offensive line leaps to mind) that show they're probably not all the way to where they want to be just yet. But some of the very important character aspects of this project are happening at an accelerated rate. And that's why these Cowboys may just be the team that comes out of this tie and wins the NFC East.