Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys are the playoff team running out of time

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is congratulated by quarterback Dak Prescott after his 20-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is congratulated by quarterback Dak Prescott after his 20-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. dkent@star-telegram.com

DeMarcus Lawrence was eloquent in assessing one element of the Dallas Cowboys’ victory on Sunday.

“[Bleep] the refs,” he said, with slightly more colorful language.

He then stopped defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

“Coach,” Lawrence said, “a holding call is well overdue.”

Marinelli just smiled and winked.

Life is good, or better, when you can all but beg the NFL for a fine and not care.

“Go ahead, fine me,” Lawrence said after his team blew out the New York Giants 30-10.

Done and done.

The Cowboys have learned that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can and will levy fines and suspensions, and whatever else he wants, but he can’t put a team into the playoffs without the necessary number of wins.

The Cowboys are the playoff team that might miss the playoffs because they will run out of time.

“I think we are a playoff team, but we gotta go prove it,” said linebacker Sean Lee, whose return to the lineup after missing the previous three games with a hamstring injury was both impressive and alarming; this team just dies without him. “Our margin for error is slim.”

Sunday is just how this season has gone.

“We’re either up, or we are really, really down,” receiver Cole Beasley said. “There is no in-between.”

Case in point: A hideous 10-all game midway through the fourth quarter turned into another route, and the Cowboys are still in it for one more week.

All seven of the Cowboys’ wins have been by double digits, and their average margin of victory is 18 points. Four of their six losses have been by double digits, and their average margin of defeat is 17.5 points.

Even in an “8-8 league,” the Cowboys have played only two games that were close: A five-point loss to the Los Angeles Rams and a four-point loss to the Green Bay Packers, both at home. In both games, the Cowboys had decent leads only to blow them.

To a man, the Cowboys say they don’t look back and “What if” about this game or that game. They’re lying. When their margin to make the playoffs is this close, it’s hard not to wonder what this season would look like had they not scored too quickly late in the loss to the Packers.

Or what this season would look like had running back Ezekiel Elliott not had to serve a six-game suspension by the NFL for violating ... rules .. about something.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was noticeably absent after the game; he likely was not eager to talk to the New York media about the NFL’s recent five-year extension given to Goodell, and/or their relationship.

“It’s football and it happens. Injuries happen or, in our case, a suspension,” guard Zack Martin said. “It’s how you deal with adversity, and we didn’t deal with it very well for a while.”

The Cowboys initially dealt with losing Zeke about as well as Texans deal with cold weather and snow. When the Cowboys ripped off three consecutive losses by the combined score of 92-22, they were not “dealing with adversity” well.

In the past two games, they have outscored their opponents 41-7 in the second half. Yes, the opponents are part of the NFC East trash pile, but the Cowboys won and both were blowouts.

“Our mindset is we still have a shot,” Martin said.

They do. Barely. They need help from the teams above them, and while they’re at it they might need help from above, too.

The “too bad” part of how this season has evolved is that the team, overall, is pretty good.

When Zeke is running and Lee is tackling, preferably on the field, the Cowboys are a playoff-caliber team. They are not a Super Bowl team, but they are a playoff team, worthy of a fifth or sixth seed in the NFC.

As was the case against the Giants, it also helps when Dez Bryant shows up, too.

Dez and a handful of receivers made the types of plays they had not made nearly all year.

Four of quarterback Dak Prescott’s 20 completions covered a total of 205 yards for three touchdowns. Had his receivers not had a pitiful case of the drops in the first half, Dak would have been near 400 yards passing. He had to settle for a career-best 332.

Dez’s 50-yard touchdown late in the second quarter is the type of play he has to make to justify his status as a No. 1 receiver.

Beating up a 2-11 Giants team doesn’t say much, and the Cowboys are just one game away from being back at .500.

This team could still easily finish 8-8 for the fourth time under head coach Jason Garrett.

But they are playing better, and they are one game away from having their Zeke back on the field.

So go ahead and fine Tank Lawrence. He’s expecting it, and the Cowboys expect to make the playoffs, no matter how slim their margin.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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