The way that they were playing in the first month-plus of the season, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys would be lucky to be a .500 team at season’s end, that Wade Phillips would be lucky to have his job come Jan. 4, 2010, and that Tony Romo would have to endure criticisms about his intestinal fortitude and big-game ability for yet another year.
There's no telling as to how each of those things will play out, but after a 2-2 start, Dallas heads into the second half as one of the league's hottest teams. Thanks to a four-game win streak, the Cowboys are now 6-2 and all alone atop the NFC East after their 20-16 win at Philadelphia on Sunday night.
With the slumping Giants on a bye week (at just the right time, for their sake) and the Eagles facing a tough road trip to streaking San Diego, the Cowboys could be two games ahead in the division if they can win at Green Bay on Sunday afternoon.
So what's propelled the Cowboys to an unexpected place at the top of the heap in the East?
Well, for starters, there’s the emergence of receiver Miles Austin as a prime target for Romo. Over the last four games, Austin has 22 catches for 531 yards (24.1 yards per catch) and six touchdowns.
It looked like the Cowboys missed T.O.’s propensity for playmaking in the early going, but Austin’s producing big plays, and more importantly, doing it without all of that unnecessary extra stuff that perpetuated T.O.'s exit from Dallas.
It also doesn’t hurt that Romo is sharp right now. In the first four games, Romo was completing 58 percent of his passes for 990 yards, with just four touchdowns and four interceptions. Over the last four games, Romo is completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,215 yards, nine touchdowns, and one interception.
Defensively, Dallas has had at least three sacks in each of the last six games, and they’ve forced seven turnovers in the last three games after forcing seven in the first five games.
So are the Cowboys for real? As nice as the Philly win was, it does have to be taken into consideration that their previous three wins came against the 1-7 Chiefs, an Atlanta team that’s 4-0 at home and 1-3 on the road, and a Seattle team that was in the middle of a run of five losses in six games.
But whether it’s the Seahawks or the Steelers, a win is a win is a win, and the Cowboys have a chance to rack up a few more and build their lead in the NFC East, all the while building a lot of steam for a brutal stretch run that will make or break their season.
Over the last five weeks, Dallas faces the Giants on the road, the Chargers at home, the Saints on the road, and after a tricky road game at Washington, host the Eagles to end the regular season.
The Cowboys went from a seemingly sure-fire playoff team to a postseason spectator by struggling in a tough final stretch last season, but Sunday night’s game in Philly was a sign that the results may be different this time around.
Against the Giants and Broncos, and Chiefs, the defense didn’t make plays when they needed in the fourth quarter, and against the Broncos, the Cowboys failed to punch it in from the two in the final minute in a 17-10 loss.
But against the Eagles, the offense made the plays, and so did the defense. Philly drove from their 25 to Dallas’ 45, and after needing one yard and having three downs to get it, the Eagles turned the ball over on downs after being stopped short three straight times.
On the next drive, Dallas had a 2nd-and-24 from their 41, and after shrinking it to a doable 3rd-and-14, Romo went for it all instead of staying conservative and playing for field position. He connected with Austin on a 49-yard score to put Dallas up 20-13 with 8:04 left, and then it was time for the D to come up big again.
On the next drive, the Cowboys held the Eagles to a field goal instead of allowing them to drive for a game-tying touchdown, and from there, the offense closed out what could prove to be a very vital road win come later on in the season.
Of course, nothing can be perfect with the Cowboys, as shown by the recent issues involving receivers Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton and their dissatisfaction with their respective situations.
However, for the time being, Dallas seems to have weathered those potential storms and a so-so start, and the Cowboys go into the second half of their season with a real chance to prove that they are who we didn't think they were—a contender.
This article was originally published on The Red Zone Report .