There are a couple of different ways this season can go from here for the Dallas Cowboys. The first is they could just keep muddling along around .500, surprising us with a great game here and there, losing the occasional game they could clearly win and ultimately doing nothing to disprove the idea that they're just not very good. This is a group, after all, that has not won two games in a row since last Thanksgiving. Soft schedule or not, it's conceivable the Cowboys just kind of are who they are.
But the other way this can go should make the Cowboys' eyes light up. The other scenario is one in which the Cowboys actually take advantage of the fact that five of their final seven games are at home and six are against teams with losing records. They put it together on offense, keep it together on defense and beat up on teams such as the Browns, Bengals, Redskins and Eagles. In this scenario, the Cowboys make life very difficult on the suddenly struggling first-place Giants and maybe -- just maybe -- play well enough to steal the NFC East title the way the Giants did from them a year ago.
The effect of the latter scenario would be significant, and it would reach into seasons to come. Because if this year's Cowboys can play well enough to deliver that particular reality, they will succeed in doing something more significant than making the 2012-13 playoffs. They will have changed the way the outside world and their fans look at them. They might even change the way they look at themselves. For many of the Cowboys' beleaguered principals, this is a chance to change the stories of their careers.
Jason Garrett isn't worried about his job as Cowboys head coach, and he doesn't have to be. Team owner Jerry Jones supports him and has made that clear at every opportunity. Jones believes Garrett will be a great head coach, and whether he's right about that or not, he's determined to give Garrett enough rope and enough time to find out. But if Garrett can lead these Cowboys on a run that makes the NFC East a race, he's got a chance to be viewed differently from here on out by Jones and everyone else. The next seven games offer Garrett a chance to show improvement in those key game-management areas for which he takes so much heat, and, more important, to show he has the ability to rally, motivate and lead his men to rise to the occasion. Depending on the way the rest of this season goes, Jones could emerge with a bunch of new evidence to support his belief in Garrett, and he could suddenly sound a lot more convincing to Cowboys fans.
Tony Romo, you may have heard once or twice, is 20-3 as a starting quarterback in the month of November but 10-17 in December and January. There was something of an acceptance among Cowboys fans that last year's December collapse was not Romo's fault but that of the defense, but many hold onto the troubling fact that he couldn't lift them above the troubles the way championship quarterbacks often do. The rest of this season offers Romo, who hasn't had a great year to this point, more chances to establish himself as the kind of quarterback who can put the team on his back and deliver in a big spot. Romo's story isn't yet written, but he hasn't done much to take control of the writing. Taking advantage of the opportunity in front of him and the Cowboys would help him do that.
Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray have a chance to prove they can be reliably healthy and helpful (though Murray first has to return from his foot injury if he's to have a chance to do that). DeMarcus Ware has a chance to answer those who began murmuring late last year that he disappears in big spots. Dez Bryant can use this remaining time to combat the persistent notion that he's a knucklehead who'll never get his act together off the field or concentrate hard enough on it. Rob Ryan has a chance to hold his defense together where last year he could not and prove that he does know how to construct something reliably frightening to stop opposing offenses. Heck, a strong finish might even get people to lighten up on Jones himself. The current roster and coaching staff bear evidence that he has ceded some significant personnel decisions to Garrett and others. If it's successful, Cowboys fans might take it as a sign that Jones is learning from past errors.
This is a big chance for the Cowboys, these final seven games. They may not be able to catch the Giants regardless, especially because they don't get to play them head-to-head. But if they can make this division race a real race, make the Giants sweat a little bit as they play teams that look a lot tougher than the ones Dallas plays, then they'll put themselves in a position to surprise at the end. They'll have shown life and spark and toughness where evidence of that stuff has recently been hard to find. They'll have changed the narrative about themselves and what they're capable of doing.
That's the opportunity that lies in front of the Cowboys here at the end of 2012. And if that doesn't get them fired up, it's hard to imagine what would.