IRVING, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys did everything expected from them in November. They played four games and won them all.
They didn’t exactly get better as they went along, and they didn’t exactly face the toughest foes in the toughest circumstances. Yet they always found a way to win, and there’s something to be said about that.
It remains to be seen whether this group led by Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware and rookie sensations DeMarco Murray and Dan Bailey can consistently beat winning teams in high-stakes games. But the bottom line on this recent surge is that they’ve put themselves in position to find out.
The Cowboys (7-4) will head into the final five weeks of the season atop the NFC East. They’ll either be tied with the Giants or a game ahead of them, depending on what happens when New York plays in New Orleans on Monday night.
“We needed to get going,” Romo said. “We had some tough losses earlier in the year, and we were in position to win some games. At some point you’ve got to get on a roll and stack the wins together. Getting these four wins was very big.”
Dallas and New York still have two meetings left, including the finale on the road on New Year’s Day. The Cowboys’ other three games are all against teams with losing records, but none are gimmes. They’ll be on the road against Arizona and Tampa Bay, and both are .500 at home, and they will play host to Philadelphia on Christmas Eve.
The Eagles were the last team to beat the Cowboys, and they spanked them 34-7 in the most lopsided loss of coach Jason Garrett’s tenure. Philadelphia also is coming off a victory over the Giants and could be back in the division race by then.
Thus, it all comes back to how Dallas plays down the stretch. Do well, and the Cowboys will make the playoffs. Struggle, and they’ll give Garrett and owner-GM Jerry Jones a better idea of which players are and aren’t keepers in 2012 and beyond.
“We’re trying not to think of it in the overall big-picture yet,” Romo said. “It’s strictly about the week-to-week and the process. … At the end of the year, those things will add up and that’s what will be talked about.”
Romo laughed as he said that, admitting he was parroting some of Garrett’s pet phrases. He knows that over the three-day weekend — the reward for having played three times in 12 days — everyone will be analyzing how far they’ve come and what they have left to return to the playoffs after a bottoming-out season last year.
“We’ll come back to work on Monday and hopefully everybody gets a chance to decompress a little bit, take a breath, get refreshed and ready to go and we’ll get … going again,” Garrett said.
The Cowboys wouldn’t be in such great shape without the emergence of Murray and Bailey.
Murray was a third-round pick who was expected to help complement Felix Jones. The lockout and a hamstring injury slowed him so much that when Jones went out with an injury, Dallas didn’t immediately hand him the job. Then he ran for 253 yards in a game he didn’t start and there was no doubt they had a special player.
Dallas is 5-1 since Murray became the featured runner. He’s gained 761 yards over those six games, which is more than NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith, fellow Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett or any other Cowboys running back has ever had.
Against Miami on Thursday, he showed he can be a closer, the kind of guy who grinds out yards and burns the clock even when everyone knows that he’s coming. On five straight carries, he gained between 3 and 9 yards. He nearly broke one of those into a longer gain but had the presence of mind to fall down in bounds rather than risk getting shoved out of bounds and stopping the clock.
“I’m still growing,” Murray said.
Bailey won a preseason kicking competition that included a fellow rookie, the incumbent and two veterans. But he didn’t exactly win the job outright as incumbent David Buehler was kept for kickoffs and rookie Kai Forbath went on the non-football injury list, giving Dallas a pair of options just in case.
Buehler is now on injured reserve and Forbath isn’t likely to get a chance here.
Bailey has made 26 straight field goals, one shy of matching the club record and 12 more than any rookie in NFL history. The last two games ended with him making a field goal, and he’s won four games this season with a kick in the final 2 minutes of regulation or in overtime. No kicker in NFL history had ever done that more than three times.
“Knock on wood, he’s been pretty automatic,” Garrett said. “He’s a very consistent guy, both in his personality and his temperament. … He seems to go out there and kick it through the pipes every time we ask him to do it.”
That’s what the Cowboys have done for the last month. They pulled away from Seattle in the second half, crushed Buffalo and eeked out wins over Washington and Miami. The Redskins and Dolphins each have only three wins, so consider that a potential warning sign.
Or maybe it’s a sign of a team that simply does what it takes to win.
The answer will be revealed over the next five weeks.