Can anyone imagine this Dallas Cowboys team—without Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Kenyon Coleman, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, Jay Ratliff and Phil Costa—going 6-2 or 7-1 in the second half of the 2012 season?
In other words, can anyone see them winning at least three of their final four games after winning three of their last four?
That is essentially what has to happen for Dallas to stand any chance at getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
I ask the question because it certainly doesn't feel as though this team, with all its injuries on defense and mistakes on offense, has such a finish in it. The Cowboys don't look or feel like a playoff team, but they're very alive in the divisional and wild-card races and much crazier things have happened.
Let's break it all down in more detail with a closer, "state of the union"-style look at America's Team headed into the final four games of 2012.
What They Should Be Thinking
The Philadelphia Eagles, who are one of the league's worst teams and haven't won since September in addition to not beating an opponent by more than two points all season, have led us in the fourth quarter twice in four weeks.
Yes, we still won both games, but the fact that we've been struggling to beat teams like Philly and Cleveland and have been losing to teams like Washington isn't a sign that we're in any shape for January football.
All four of our final opponents—Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Washington—are beatable, but they're all better than Philly or Cleveland. Thus, we absolutely have to step our game up if we're going to run the table, which has to be the goal as we attempt to make up ground in the playoff race.
How exactly does that happen? It's hard to see how we can improve much more than we have on offense, which sounds positive but also means a ceiling might have been hit. Defensively, we simply have too many men down to somehow manage to get better over the final four weeks.
It just doesn't add up. We need a miracle.
DeMarco Murray's back and the offense is different with him in the backfield. That's a big reason why the red-hot Tony Romo had his best game of the season in Philadelphia. The defense might be depleted, but the offense might be good enough to compensate for the points it surrenders due to all of those injuries.
To boot, we've become more efficient and much more careful with the football. We've turned it over just four times in five games and actually have a positive turnover ratio since Week 9.
We have to continue to take shots on offense while hoping that Rob Ryan's defense can prevent home runs and make enough big plays with DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher to keep the ball out of our opponents' hands.
We still have the talent to be a playoff team. Scandrick is out, but Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins make up a solid trio of corners. We're used to dealing without Church and Lee, and Ernie Sims and Dan Connor are at least experienced veterans charged with replacing Lee and Carter. Same goes for Josh Brent and Marcus Spears in place of Ratliff and Coleman on the line.
As long as Ware, Spencer, Hatcher, Carr and Claiborne are out there, we can beat anyone.
The odds aren't in our favor, but that means the pressure is off and we've got nothing to lose. Time to make some plays and hope for the best.
What I'm Thinking
Stock Rising: Dez Bryant
He and Tony Romo are really starting to get into a groove. Bryant is one of the league's hottest receivers and the mental mistakes have disappeared. More on the young, controversial wideout finally putting it all together here.
Stock Rising: Josh Brent
The third-year nose tackle has really emerged in place of Ratliff lately. He's been battling double-teams like a champ and he forced a game-clinching fumble on Bryce Brown Sunday night. The future's bright.
Stock Dropping: Doug Free
It officially can't get any worse for Free, who was abused again vs. Philadelphia, giving up two sacks and being responsible for 39 percent of the pressure Romo faced, according to numbers provided by Pro Football Focus. He's also the most penalized player in the NFL.
Stock Dropping: Danny McCray
It's rare that I put a guy in the same spot two weeks in a row, but McCray's just been killing this defense lately. He had three more missed tackles against Philly and was out of place far too often. His last two outings have been simply terrible.
I don't see it happening, but I'm just a crazy old realist. What's interesting, though, is I'm finding that the majority of diehard Cowboys fans are resigned to the reality that this isn't a playoff team right now.
They'll likely finish 8-8 again, falling a game or two short of the playoffs. The good news is that, despite that, I don't believe this roster needs a lot of work. It has had some tough breaks this year.
When healthy, the Cowboys will have a chance from the get-go in 2013.
View last week's report here
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