The Dallas Cowboys are about to embark on a crucial four-game stretch while trying to keep their foot on the throttle in the NFC East. The Cowboys were handed every opportunity to turn this division into a runaway, but even with huge wins against the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, there is still no margin for error.
The Cowboys have games left against the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. At this point, it doesn't even matter where these games are played, and the Cowboys, again, have positioned themselves to either take the next step or have repeats of prior seasons ending in despair.
For players like Tony Romo and Jason Witten, it's hard to imagine either of them not saying, "Here we go again," but maybe the experiences of losing will ultimately catapult this team into something more special. These next four games probably have more to do with wanting it more versus X's and O's.
If a franchise can't see a finish line, an opportunity to seize the moment and a chance to capitalize on all of the hard work that goes into a football team, then the results are nothing more than a byproduct of the culture of a team. It's that simple.
This is the time of year when great teams do great things, bad teams continue to figure out where things went wrong and teams in the middle either take a leap or remain stagnant. Will this Cowboys team finally snap out of their December spiral and meet their challenges?
Let's take a look at what this team needs to do, starting with the obstacles that potentially stand in their way.
When you think about the injuries this team has sustained in recent years, it's head-scratching. Currently, the Cowboys are dealing with a hamstring injury epidemic, and it's causing major strains on a depth chart that was thin coming into the season.
Sean Lee is the most notable of the injured Cowboys, and losing him for even a few snaps simply hurts this team. He is that good, he is that smart, and he is simply that valuable. Justin Durant is another injury that hurts because it further depletes a linebacker corps short on depth.
Morris Claiborne is also dealing with a hamstring issue, and that means B.W. Webb sees more of the field. Sterling Moore was added for depth purposes, but this team needs Claiborne active and playing. There are other injuries as well, both nagging and constant, but such is life in the NFL.
Dwayne Harris' absence hurts the Cowboys on special teams, but they aren't dealing with anything different than any other team. So the next-man-up mantra becomes even more important for this team and its hopes of making the playoffs.
A few other players to keep an eye on are DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who are arguably the only legitimate pass-rushers this team has. With little depth and impact behind them, this is a constant worry.
Defensively, the Cowboys have had major struggles and their own obstacles, but injuries may just be the biggest obstacle this team faces. In fact, it is.
DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are two key players on this defensive line who have the ability to impact the outcome of a game. But both have battled injuries all season, and that has had major ramifications for this defense. More specifically, the ability of this defensive line to generate pressure.
Lack of pressure and the inability to get opposing offenses off the field will continue to be an obstacle for this team if it has any chance at making the playoffs. Playoff-bound teams such as the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers all posses impact quarterbacks, both throwing and running.
Credit coach Rod Marinelli for keeping this unit as intact as he possibly can, but the weekly auditions and signings have turned this position into a full-fledged revolving door. Hopefully Marinelli can continue to get every ounce of energy out of this bunch, but it certainly won't be easy.
Somehow and some way, the Cowboys will need to ramp up the pressure by the defensive line from the players who exist on the roster. Nobody is coming in to save the day, the team or its ability to rush the passer.
It would be unfair to single out the defensive line for multiple obstacles, but this team will not go far if they continue to get gashed in the running game. Look no further than performances by Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Rashad Jennings as proof.
Losing Sean Lee doesn't help matters, but the statistics simply don't lie. The Cowboys have been out-rushed by their opponents 1,520 yards versus 1,021, and rank near the bottom of virtually every major defensive category.
Marinelli is simply doing his best with players such as Jarius Wynn, Corey Irvin, Drake Nevis and some of the other weekly additions to this team, but at times it's obvious that this is a major concern. Opponents are averaging five yards a carry against the Cowboys and that can make things rather difficult defensively.
As the season winds down and the elements factor into the game, teams usually lean on their running games a bit more. The Cowboys need to continue to buying into Marinelli's system of hustling from snap to whistle to ensure any type of success.
Hatcher and Ware need to lead by example in this area, but they need to be on the field to do so. Bottom line is that this will be the ultimate team effort in stopping the run. It's the only answer.
Losing the turnover battle will kill any team in the NFL. But while the Cowboys have excelled in the takeaway department, they have also been dodging some major bullets as of late. In last week's game in New York, Tony Romo was credited with an interception, but the blame falls on Dez Bryant.
Bryant also had the ball jarred loose late in the fourth quarter of that game, but it bounced favorably out of bounds. But his blunder also set up a 3rd-and-30 situation, which never ends well. In the game against Oakland, Bryant had the ball knocked loose by Mike Jenkins, but Tyron Smith recovered.
Going back to the New York game, Cole Beasley also had the ball stripped and recovered by the Giants, but a roughing-the-passer call saved the play. The Cowboys need to secure the football in these remaining games. The intensity level rises, the game gets tighter, and the need for playmaking becomes crucial.
For a player like Bryant, trying to do too much can ultimately do more harm than good. For a team like the Cowboys, providing the opponent with an extra possession could be the difference in the season.
For as much focus and scrutiny as the defensive line receives, the offensive line is still under a microscope as well. The unit has been playing well, there seems to be some nice cohesion overall, and players like Doug Free, Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau have really stepped up their game.
Losing Brian Waters was a difficult loss for the Cowboys, but this team has no choice but to keep grinding, keep battling and keep playing consistent in both protection and the running game. The Cowboys have been effectively running the ball, and that will have to continue for any shot at a postseason berth.
But somewhere in these next few games, the Cowboys will face challenges in both opposing pressure and the running game. The key for this unit will be to take the fight to their opponent in an aggressive manner and not sit back and receive the fight.
Keeping Romo upright and giving him the time necessary to go through his reads will be paramount for this team. Romo will undoubtedly have to make plays for the Cowboys, and that's why the success of this unit ultimately will dictate a lot for this team in 2013.
At the same time, the only way to take pressure off of Romo is with the continued success of the running game with Murray. This could also be the way to take the pressure off of a defense that has given up its share of yardage.
In short, there is a lot pressure on this offensive line on many levels. Don't ever underestimate the importance of this position.