America's Team hasn't been to the big game since 1995 but that doesn't mean they can't end that streak this year. Here are four things the Cowboys must do to make it to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII.
Stellar Play from Tony Romo
Romo showed the entire country on national television what the Cowboys offense can do when it's rolling on all cylinders. Running back DeMarco Murray was able to run for 131 yards, partially because the Giants defense had to be prepared for Romo to throw the ball.
The Eastern Illinois alum threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns against the third-best defense in the postseason last year. Romo pulled off the best statistical year of his career last season and almost brought the Cowboys to the playoffs despite a lackluster defense and offensive line protecting him.
Now, with at least one part of that problem solved in—the defense—Romo needs to improve or repeat his 2011 performance where he threw for over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns. If No. 9 can replicate or build upon his numbers from last year and get help from his defense, Dallas is a legit contender in the NFC.
Improved Defensive Play
Speaking of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's unit, the team spent much of the offseason bringing in new talent and those new faces must prove their worth this season. Notable additions such as linebacker Dan Connor and cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr need to bring this defense from its previous rank of 14th a season ago to a top 10 or top five unit.
With Claiborne's high pedigree and two straight seasons of five or more interceptions for his alma mater LSU paired with Carr's four picks with Kansas City in 2011, Dallas should be able to create more turnovers than the 24 it posted last year.
Connor should help keep the opposition's running game in check along with his fellow linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee. Ryan boasts a solid squad that already proved this year that it can give even a top 10 offense from a season ago fits when everything is working.
The Cowboys learned in 2011 that you can't make the playoffs, much less reach the Super Bowl, if you're trying to win games in spite of your defense. Perhaps the most important part of Dallas reaching the big game this year lies on the play of the defense.
Consistent Running Game
The Cowboys haven't had a consistent rushing attack since Emmitt Smith hung up his No. 22 jersey, but Murray is the latest to show flashes of being the work horse this team has been craving.
Head coach Jason Garrett was a quarterback and quarterback coach once upon a time so it's no secret he likes to pass the ball, but he knows just how important a balanced offensive attack is.
Murray's strong start can't be a once-in-a-while thing. The Cowboys need to have defenses on their toes, biting at both play-action and draw plays because the unit respects each aspect of Dallas' attack.
Murray doesn't need to rush for 131 yards every game but he needs to consistently crack into that 80-100 range to balance out the Dallas offense.
Win in December
There's no other way to say it, Dallas has not been a good December team in a decade and that trend cannot continue if this team wants to go to New Orleans. As Keith Whitmire of Fox Sports noted in an article of his last December, the Cowboys are 16-27 in regular season games played from December through January over the past 10 years.
This isn't something where one can pull upon individual player or coaches stats and try to predict how the team will do based on that data, it's just something Dallas must do.
This season's December schedule does not make things any easier for the Cowboys to accomplish this goal with meetings against the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals all scheduled during that time.
None of those teams will be a walk in the park to defeat, but Garrett's team needs to find a way to post a record above .500 in the last month of 2012. That would prove to the rest of the league that the Cowboys are not a team to write off after the month of November ends.
If Dallas can power through December playing good football and earning wins along the way, that will be a huge confidence boost that could last all the way to the Superdome.
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