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Cowboys In The Driver's Seat Heading Into Thanksgiving

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The Cowboys regained the division lead and dealt the Giants a fatal blow in Week 12. Now they must capitalize with a holiday win against Oakland. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.
The Cowboys regained the division lead and dealt the Giants a fatal blow in Week 12. Now they must capitalize with a holiday win against Oakland. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

Ironically, the roller coaster ride that’s characterized the Dallas Cowboys season has, after 11 weeks, put them in a desirable position for the postseason. And for better or worse, the’ Boys now control their own destiny.

The NFC North is reeling: Detroit has lost consecutive games to sub-.500 teams; Green Bay still can’t win without Aaron Rodgers; Chicago was just blown out by St. Louis and their 258 rushing yards. For weeks, it seemed certain that division would produce a Wild Card. Now, the schedule suggests its teams will spend the remaining games beating each other up and bringing everything down to the final week.

Furthermore, it’s doubtful the NFC North winner, let alone its runner-up, will finish with a better record than the runner-ups for the NFC South and the NFC West. Arizona and Carolina look more and more dangerous each week. St. Louis has strung together two impressive wins, and San Francisco should get to 7-4 following its Monday night game against Washington.

The conference contenders are evenly comprised of locks, plausible entrants and straight-up hopefuls. For the Cowboys, the weakness of the NFC East is a blessing — assuming they hang on to win it.

Though mathematically still alive, the Redskins and Giants are done. And because the Eagles can’t win at home — one victory in their last 12 games at the ‘Linc — they’re in trouble with the roaring Cardinals coming to town this weekend. That game is followed by another home contest against Detroit and Calvin Johnson — did we mention the Eagles now have the league’s worst pass defense?

The Cowboys, armed with a 4-0 division record and a 6-2 conference record that should be sufficient in tie-break scenarios, have a brilliant opportunity to push Philly’s back to the wall and to avoid another winner-take-all, Week 17 drama. As an added incentive, they get consecutive chances to essentially secure the No. 3 seed via games against Chicago and Green Bay. God bless divisional mediocrity and parity, in the NFC East and North alike.

Of course, the No. 3 seed is something of an illusion — regardless what Wild-Card team the Cowboys draw, they’ll be solid underdogs. But the seeding would at least be the product of an impressive finish and an indication of a fundamentally sound roster (when healthy) in place for the future.

It starts with Turkey Day and the Raiders. The Cowboys’ 24-21 victory over the Giants in Week 12 saw their run defense gashed for 202 yards and their offense suffer four drops, three fumbles, four sacks and five quarterback hits. Yes, the play-calling was better, the running game was exceptionally efficient, and the final three third-down conversions epitomized “clutch.” But add 11 penalties to those numbers and the need for improvement during a short week intensifies.

Oakland likes to run the ball; the team’s called only 18 more passes than runs this year and ranks fifth in rushing yards per game. The Cowboys are undersized at defensive tackle and without dynamic MLB Sean Lee. If they don’t post similar success rates in the red zone (66 percent) and on third down (75 percent), the offense could end up playing catch-up under duress.

Win and the Cowboys will finally have some momentum when it counts followed by another long break to get healthier. Lose and it’s just one more huge opportunity squandered.

Either way, the Cowboys are in the driver’s seat — exclusive controllers of their own fate. How they handle this privilege will determine, with finality, whether it’s time to stick with coaches and players in place or rebuild from the ground-up.