No one saw this coming for the Dallas Cowboys and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
A 7-1 start, first-place in NFC East, riding a seven-game winning streak and tied for the best record in the NFL with a fourth-round rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott?
But, despite the absence of Tony Romo for eight games and wide receiver Dez Bryant for three games, this is where the Cowboys sit at the midpoint of the season with suddenly realistic dreams of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, the last of their three Super Bowl titles of the 1990s.
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Last year at this time they were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak en route to a 4-12 finish, largely because of the absences of Romo and Bryant.
“I think about the way that we have gotten here,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “The fact we’ve been as limited with key players. Dez specifically, Romo, and have this kind of record. I couldn’t have really dreamed that we could have the team we’ve got and not have those key guys for part of the time.”
Here’s a look at some midseason superlatives:
Team MVP QB Dak Prescott
Prescott has been a godsend to a team that historically couldn’t walk and chew gum without Romo. The Cowboys had a 7-20 record without Romo since 2006. More recently, they were 1-11 during last year’s 4-12 nightmare without Romo, who broke his collarbone twice. The loss of Romo before the start of this season with a broken bone in his back seemed catastrophic. But Prescott turned the nightmare into a dream, leading the team to seven consecutive wins and tied for the best record in the NFL. Prescott has already set a team record for wins as a rookie. He is the second quarterback in NFL history to win seven of his first eight starts, joining Johnny Lujack (Chicago Bears 1948-49).
Offensive MVP RB Ezekiel Elliott
What more can be said about Elliott, who is the bell cow of the league’s top-ranked running attack. He leads the league with 891 yards rushing, big-play runs (27) and rushing first downs (51). The Cowboys lead the league in time of possession because of Elliott’s play. He is the first rookie in the NFL history to have four consecutive games with 130 rushing yards or more. He has the third-most rushing yards to start a career in NFL history, behind only Adrian Peterson and Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. The Cowboys called him a natural when they drafted him fourth overall out of Ohio State.
Defensive MVP LB Sean Lee
Lee has been the epitome of the best player and team leader for a defense that is playing well above expectations. Lee leads the team with 77 tackles, well ahead of safety Barry Church’s 64 for second place. He also has a team-leading five tackles for loss. Lee has been all over the field for a run defense that gives up only 86.9 yards a game to rank sixth in the league. He sets the tone.
Defining moment OT win over Eagles
This was the game Prescott seemed destined to fold. The Cowboys trailed Philadelphia 23-13 early in the fourth quarter and appeared on their way to a second loss. Prescott was intercepted once, had a fumble and was inaccurate for much of the night. With the possible return of Romo looming, Prescott appeared to finally be blinking. Suddenly the light came. Prescott tossed a 22-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Bryant in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime. Prescott then completed five consecutive passes for 56 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Jason Witten to win the game in overtime.
Worst moment Terrance Williams gaffe
The Cowboys could possibly be 8-0 if not for a bad decision by receiver Terrance Williams in the opener. The Cowboys trailed the New York Giants 20-19. Dallas drove to its own 46-yard-line. It was third and 10 with 12 seconds left. Prescott threw a pass to Williams at the Giants’ 48. The Cowboys were out of timeouts and everybody on the field and in the stadium were pointing and yelling at Williams to get out of bounds. Instead, he cut up the field in hopes getting more yardage. The clock ran out. It was the final play of the game, robbing the Cowboys of a chance at a 62-yard field goal by Dan Bailey, who had already hit from 56 and 54 yard earlier in the game.
The defense began the season with questions and without three suspended starters. Even with them, the unit was considered the team’s weak link. Yet, eight games into the season, the Cowboys have the league’s 10th best unit. The defense hasn’t ranked that high since finishing ninth in 2009. The Cowboys are helped by an offense that controls the ball and the clock, minimizing their time on the field. The unit is making significant plays, and most important, not giving up big plays. The Cowboys are the only team in the league that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver. They’ve allowed one touchdown of 20 yards or more. They have 18 sacks after netting only 31 in 16 games last season.
3 things to watch
The QB Quandary: Dak or Tony? Common sense says the Cowboys will continue to stick with Prescott. But common sense is not always common when it comes to Jerry Jones and his decision making. Romo is cleared and ready to play. He wants to play. He is going to tear things up in practice as the scout-team quarterback. If Prescott stumbles and/or the Cowboys lose a couple of games, then the door might open for Romo’s return.
Will Elliott hit the rookie wall? Elliott leads the league in rushing, but he’s also second in the league in attempts. It’s important that the Cowboys keep him fresh and strong not just for the final eight games, but also for the playoffs. When DeMarco Murray rushed for a team-record 1,845 yards in 2014, he rushed for less than 100 yards and recorded less than 4 yards per carry in three of his final five games, including two when he averaged 2.6 yards per carry. Look for the Cowboys to get backup Alfred Morris more carries.
Who’s coming back? The good news is they have a chance to get stronger over the second half of the season because of the return of injured safety Morris Claiborne (strained groin) and safety Barry Church (fractured arm). Both are out four to six weeks. The team could also get defensive end Randy Gregory back for a playoff run. He is out the first 14 games because of an NFL suspension. Gregory is still the best pass rusher on the team. There is little chance suspended linebacker Rolando McClain will return. The Cowboys also have decisions to make with running Darren McFadden, who started the season on the non-football injury list, and tight end James Hanna, who started on the physically unable to perform list. Both are ready to play, but there appears to be no room at the inn. Both positions are deep and being filled more than adequately by other players. The Cowboys have a couple of more weeks to make a decision before they must be activated, placed on the injured reserve, or released.
Cowboys at Steelers
3:25 p.m., Sunday, KDFW/4