Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 11/30/11
DALLAS - In a season full of dizzying highs and lows, the Dallas Cowboys have somehow emerged as the clear favorites to win the NFC East. Yes, they have been helped by the implosions of the Eagles and Giants, but that shouldn't be held against them. If everything goes as expected, there's a decent chance the Cowboys could clinch a division title with a win over the Giants on Dec. 11. That seemed like a pipe dream when Dallas was blown out by the Eagles last month, and the Giants raced out to a 6-2 start. But coach Jason Garrett's stay-in-the-moment approach helped the Cowboys take advantage of a soft stretch in the schedule during this four-game winning streak. That stretch will end Sunday afternoon in Glendale, Ariz., where the Cowboys have an excellent opportunity to improve to 8-4 and put a strangle-hold on the NFC East race. And unlike past teams that have sprinted into December with flashy numbers, the Cowboys are actually built to make a deep playoff run. I realize that yielding big passing days to immortals such as Rex Grossman and Matt Moore may have given some of you pause, but the Cowboys found a way to win those games. Things tend to even out over the course of an NFL season, and that's why Garrett didn't let his team panic after full-blown choke jobs against the Jets and Lions. Garrett, an often humorless man who believes in awkwardly long eye contact, is one of the biggest reasons the Cowboys are better equipped to have staying power in the playoffs. The 2007 team had all the talent in the world, but head coach Wade Phillips wasn't able to keep his players focused heading into a Divisional playoff game against the Giants. Garrett was the offensive coordinator of that team, but he had to lean on assistant head coach Tony Sparano heavily during that season. And that was a smart decision on his part. Over the next three seasons, it was difficult to know how much influence Garrett had on the team because he went out of his way not to overstep his boundaries with Phillips. But once Phillips was fired after eight games last season, Garrett didn't waste any time putting his stamp on the Cowboys. He doesn't care if players like him, but he certainly demands their respect. In 2009, the Cowboys finally won a playoff game with quarterback Tony Romo. But they were no match for the Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome the following week. This season, there are only two teams in the NFC that appear to be clearly better than the Cowboys: the Packers and Saints. The 49ers are 9-2, but one of those losses came against the Cowboys at Candlestick Park. And you'll recall that Romo led a comeback while playing with a broken rib that he suffered in the first half. The Chicago Bears were dangerous until quarterback Jay Cutler fractured his right thumb, likely ending his season. And the Detroit Lions (7-4) won't have their best defensive player, Ndamukong Suh, for the next two games unless he wins an appeal. The Atlanta Falcons (7-4) aren't scaring anyone this season, so the Cowboys have a legitimate shot to be the No. 4 seed and host a wild-card playoff game. The best sign for the Cowboys is that Romo has thrown only three interceptions over the past six games. His ability to extend plays with his self-described "shimmy" has covered for a leaky offensive line that should only improve over the next month. Romo is the third-rated passer in the NFC and the guy in front of him, Drew Brees, has thrown two more interceptions (11) than him. Garrett has done a nice job of convincing Romo to protect the ball while not trying to take away his rare ability to improvise. "He makes a lot of plays for your team and there was a stretch there where he had some tough plays," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten told us on 103.3's "Galloway & Company. "The thing you learn about people early on, especially when you're talking about franchise type quarterbacks, is how he's going to handle those situations. What we've seen over the past six weeks speaks a lot about his mindset of not getting down in those situations. He knows he made some bad mistakes and he knew he was going to be better because of it. I think the thing we're seeing the last four or five weeks when he's making those throws, when they fail, it's an incomplete pass. It's not an interception or a fumble or anything like that." The other thing that gives the Cowboys an opportunity to win on the road in the playoffs is the emergence of rookie running back DeMarco Murray. Other than Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and San Francisco's Frank Gore, is there another back in the NFC you would take over Murray right now? LeSean McCoy has had an excellent season for the Eagles, but it's not like all those yards have translated to wins. Garrett seemed averse to sticking with the run early in his tenure as offensive coordinator, but now you're seeing a lot more balance. He used Murray to set up the game-winning drive against the Dolphins last Thursday. When you throw in what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought to the team, the Cowboys could be a scary team in the playoffs. Maybe this all seems a bit premature, but at 7-4, this team has a chance to roll toward the playoffs. And possible stick around awhile.
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