Last year, when the Dallas Cowboys finished 1-4 and lost the NFC East to the New York Giants, blame fell on the defense. They couldn't stop anybody. They blew fourth-quarter leads in key games against the Cardinals and Giants. Opposing fullbacks hurdled their cornerbacks with abandon. It was ugly.
Fast-forward a year, and the Cowboys sit at 6-6, one game out of a playoff spot with four games left on the schedule. And as Calvin Watkins writes, the key to whether they can cash in this opportunity is once again the defense:
If things don't improve for the defense, the season could end before New Year's Day. Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals are next, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, quite possibly with Ben Roethlisberger back in action. Then comes Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, and finally Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins help close the season.
You could say these are winnable games for the Cowboys. If the offense continues to produce points, like the 38 it did Sunday against the Eagles, you might believe that group can carry a few games late.But you can't believe in a defense that's given up eight touchdown drives to rookie quarterbacks the last two weeks.
I don't think this year's issues on the Cowboys' defense are the same as last year's. This year's defense has been very good for stretches, but has turned leaky in recent weeks. Because of injuries, it is playing without its two starting inside linebackers, one of its starting safeties, its nickel cornerback and two of its starting defensive linemen. Last year's defense was, for the most part, healthy in December. It just stunk.
The question for the Cowboys all season, to me, has been whether they were deep enough to last. There is big-time talent in certain places on the roster, but there is not, throughout the roster, the sort of depth of talent a team needs to make it through a season as a championship contender. I think the people who run and build the team know that, and that they perceive themselves in the middle of a building project set to continue in the coming offseason.
Yet they do stand a real chance, with four games to go, of reaching this year's playoffs. And so in spite of the injuries and any other issues they may be having, it's on coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to find a way to fire up the defense to maximize what it has in pursuit of that chance. The Cowboys may not have enough to handle that remaining schedule. And if they don't, a third straight season without a playoff game can't be a total surprise. But if they can overcome their problems, play big over the final four games and swipe one of those spots... well, that'd be something on which to build, now wouldn't it?