It's been a hell of a season for the Dallas Cowboys, but this team still has a chance to get into the playoffs with a strong finish.
Jason Garrett's name has been mentioned amongst head coaches on hot seats since before the season even began, and it only got worse as the 'Boys' season seemed to go up on flames in the first half.
Tony Romo has been under fire all year long, too, and his jaw-dropping interception totals warranted the criticism.
Then, a real-life disaster struck this team when Jerry Brown was killed in a car accident. Teammate Josh Brent was behind the wheel, and police reports show his blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit (h/t CBSSports.com).
With heavy hearts, the players and coaches rallied only one day later to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, thanks to a furious fourth-quarter comeback led by Romo that was capped off by a last-second field goal by Dan Bailey.
Now, with just three games remaining on the schedule, the Cowboys find themselves one game behind the New York Giants for the NFC East divisional crown, a half-game behind the Washington Redskins and one game behind the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears for a wild-card spot.
Here's a quick look at the final three games:
Let's take a look at three things the Cowboys must do to get things back on track for late-season surge that will get them into the playoffs.
Cut Down on Penalties
The Cowboys have been one of the worst teams this season at shooting themselves in the foot with penalties.
And while it's true the Cowboys have improved of late in this department, the team's 6.7 penalties-per-game average the past three games is still worse than the seasonal average of 19 teams.
You just can't win on a regular basis in the NFL when you continue to give away yards to your opponent.
The Cowboys must buckle down and start playing with some discipline in this final three-game stretch.
Win the Turnover Battle
If you thought penalties were killing the Cowboys this season, you were right, but turnovers have been an even bigger issue for this team.
The past two games, the Cowboys have managed to limit their mistakes and have only turned the ball over once. And wouldn't you know it? The Cowboys won both games.
For the season, the Cowboys are minus-10 in the turnover-differential statistic—the biggest reason they struggled for most of the first half of the year.
With three high-powered offenses coming up in their final three games, the Cowboys can't afford to give them any extra chances to put points on the board.
Continue to Carry One Another's Burdens
The Kansas City Chiefs were able to rally after losing Javon Belcher to a murder-suicide one week before the Cowboys lost Brown, but they weren't able to carry the momentum forward and lost the next week—badly.
As difficult as it is to talk about these things, the fact of the matter is that the players on both teams are still tasked with winning ball games—no matter how much pain they may be in.
I can't begin to imagine how much of a strain it must put on a locker room to have such a tragedy lingering, but I do know that the only way to get through it is that the players must stick together and fight for one another.
The Cowboys have a much better team than the Chiefs, but the fact remains that it wouldn't surprise anyone to see this team suffer an emotional let-down after last week's game—just like what we saw from the Chiefs in Week 14.
If the Cowboys have any hope of making the playoffs in 2012, the players must continue rallying around one another, supporting one another in their time of grief.
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