The 2014 Dallas Cowboys at the Top of the Stretch: Getting In

Josh Brent in the 2012 preseason.
Josh Brent in the 2012 preseason.
Dallas Cowboys

We did it you guys. The longest wait of every fall, the two weeks surrounding the Cowboys bye, are nearly over. The team sits at 7-3 having weathered, for now at least, a Tony Romo injury crisis, a defense that still isn't very good and Jerry Jones getting busted for doing some very Jerry Jones things.

Things look good, but with six games to play, making the playoffs -- much less winning in the playoffs -- is still a daunting proposition. Here's what I'll be looking at over the stretch run.

Jason Garrett's Management of Tony Romo At this point, it's impossible to overstate Romo's importance to the Cowboys. Even in a diminished state, he provides the necessary threat to keep safeties out of the box. As the team heads into a Sunday when it will play the first of three games in 12 days, it is imperative that Garrett and his staff find a way to maximize Romo's contributions. Limiting his snaps against the terrible Giants on Sunday night would be the smart play, but it's not something that's likely to happen. Leaving Romo in the game after it's been decided, as Garrett did against the Jaguars, would be extraordinarily foolish.

The NFC South Dumpster Fire There's a good reason that 10 wins might not be enough to get the Cowboys into the playoffs: The NFC South is so bad that it is just hemorrhaging extra wins into the conference's other three divisions. The Falcons, who lead the division at 4-6, have not beaten a non-divisional opponent. It looks like seven wins might be more than enough enough to win the division, which bodes ill for the any of the other NFC contenders that don't manage to win their division. If you thought (8-8)x3 was bad, wait until the 10-6 Cowboys don't make the playoffs and the 5-10-1 Panthers do.

The Return of Josh Brent It seems unlikely at this point that Brent will play against the Giants on Sunday, but there's a decent chance he'll contribute to the defense on the field -- mainly by taking up space with his 300-plus pound frame -- over the final five games. The locker room may be a different story. Brent's getting a late start to the season because he was the driver in a drunk driving accident that killed his best friend, Cowboys' linebacker Jerry Brown.

December 4 in Chicago On paper the Cowboys game with the Bears the Thursday after Thanksgiving is the least interesting game left on the schedule. It's not a division game and the Bears aren't any good. The things is, I'm basically positive the Cowboys are going to lose at Soldier Field. Why? Because the Cowboys, in my mind at least, never win at Chicago, especially at night. There was last year's 45-28 debacle, the 34-18 drubbing in Arlington the year before and, going back a bit the 22-6 embarrassment in opening the season on Monday in 1996 after winning the previous year's Super Bowl. The only thing that gives me hope is the knowledge that I'm indulging heavily in the gambler's fallacy and that DeMarco Murray is more than tough enough for the Chicago cold.

Mark Sanchez and the Rest of the Eagles With starting QB Nick Foles out for the season and the Eagles erratic performances in the last two weeks, it's impossible to know how good the team tied atop the NFC East with Cowboys really is. If Sanchez is as good as he looked against Carolina two weeks ago, Dallas will struggle to get the split with Philadelphia it likely needs to secure the division crowd. If he's as bad as he looked against the Packers last week, the Cowboys might not need 10 wins to finish first, much less 11. The reality, of course, is somewhere in between. Sanchez is not a star, but his limited skills are perfectly suited to Chip Kelly's offense. The USC-product doesn't have to make many tough decisions or hold on to the ball very long, but he is still the guy he gave the world this:

One thing I'm not worried about is DeMarco Murray. While his historic workload doesn't bode particularly well for the rest of his career, the strength of the offensive line he runs behind means he can keep it up for the rest of this season. Murray gets a ton of his yards before contact, which helps keep the wear and tear on his body down just a bit over other backs, like Jamal Lewis and Ricky Williams, who've suffered after getting a similar amount of touches early in the season.

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