The Dallas Cowboys are seemingly right where they want to be heading in to the last month of the season with four games to go.
They remain in a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles atop the NFC East with a 7-5 record, though the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker because of a superior division mark.
But more importantly, they have built a little momentum for the stretch run, riding a two-game winning streak to put them two games over .500 for the first time since last December.
“We just need to win some games,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “I think more than anything else you’ve just got to keep stacking wins together and see where you’re at at the end. Our football team continues to try to improve each week that goes by, and I think we’re playing some of our better football right now.”
And for a Cowboys team hit by bad luck and injuries for much of the year, the football gods finally might be smiling on owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys again after 17 years in purgatory.
Not only will they get several injured players back for the last four games, including linebackers Sean Lee and Justin Durant and possibly cornerback Morris Claiborne, but the final schedule also doesn’t appear as daunting as originally thought.
The Cowboys play Monday at the Chicago Bears. And while any December game in the chilly temperatures of the Windy City are always most challenging, these Bears are not the Monsters of the Midway.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, who has missed the past three games, could be back for the prime-time showdown. But he would almost certainly be rusty and less than 100 percent.
Chicago (6-6) is not playing good football right now. The Bears have lost two in a row, three of the past four and five of their past eight.
Chicago will have former Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff on the field looking to make a statement. But if his play against the Minnesota Vikings in his season debut Sunday — one tackle — is any indication, then the Cowboys will have nothing to worry about.
The following week, the Cowboys host the Green Bay Packers (5-6-1), another contender in free fall. The Packers haven’t won since before Halloween, fashioning a 0-4-1 record during November. Those also happen to be the games they’ve gone without All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who fractured his left collarbone.
Rodgers might be back for the Cowboys game. But there are also rumblings that the Packers might shut him down for the season.
Given the Cowboys’ record against elite quarterbacks this season: Eli Manning (the first time), Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, who all torched the Dallas defense, not having to face Rodgers would be something to get excited about.
Facing a well-traveled and well-discarded Packers backup in Matt Flynn at home seems far less daunting.
That leads into the Dec. 22 battle at the Washington Redskins (3-9), losers of four consecutive, five of the past six and six of the past eight.
Being a rivalry game, the Redskins would love nothing more than to ruin the Cowboys’ season. But can they take enough time away from bickering and beating up on their own quarterback, Robert Griffin III, to concentrate on a real opponent?
Fittingly, the Cowboys end the season at home against the Eagles in a likely winner-take-all battle for the NFC East title and a playoff berth.
“I still think that it’s going to come down to beating the Eagles,” Jones said. “Then again, I’m not forgetting about Washington. We’ve got these two away, two at home, formidable teams. ... So we’ve got our hands full.”
December history has not been a pleasant memory for the Cowboys. Romo is 11-15 in December since becoming the starting quarterback in 2006.
Romo is 1-6 in win-or-go-home games, including the playoffs, and the Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
In 2011, they lost four of their last five, including a winner-take-all game against the New York Giants in the regular-season finale, to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. Last year, they had an 8-6 record before losing their last two games, including a winner-take-all season finale against the Redskins.
However, there is a feeling in this locker room that this is a different team. One that is finally ready to finish. One that doesn’t want the results of years past. One that is ready to peak at the right time.
“I think everything is starting to build at the right time,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “This team is molding to be the team we need to be. We’ve got to keep getting wins and keep this going forward.”
The Eagles, winners of four in a row, still have to play Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago before the rematch with the Cowboys. There is a possibility that the Week 17 game won’t matter if Dallas takes care of Washington and is at least a game ahead of Philly going into the last week. The Cowboys would claim the division, win or lose, based on tiebreakers.
Of course, getting into the playoffs and making a Super Bowl run for the first time since 1995 are two different things.
After the injury-filled season the Cowboys have had, finishing strong and reaching the postseason would be a triumph in itself.
It’s a process, remember.