Mac Engel

Defense’s contribution will determine if Cowboys reach Super Bowl

Jerry Jones has an offense that is Super Bowl worthy, but the defense still needs some work.
Jerry Jones has an offense that is Super Bowl worthy, but the defense still needs some work.

The Cowboys (band)wagon train rolls into Minnesota for Thursday Night Football which, per Jerry Jones, will remain a fixture of the NFL.

While Jerry’s announcement that Thursday Night Football, whose future has been a source of speculation that it may be axed, is “here for good,” the best news for the NFL these days is the return of America’s Team.

Life in DFW is brighter, and the state of football is undeniably more interesting, when the Dallas Cowboys are winning.

Beginning Thursday night, the Cowboys will likely play four consecutive prime-time games because America can’t watch this team enough. The Cowboys own the four highest-rated NFL games this season.

They have a 2 1/2-game lead for the top seed in the NFC; I would bet a nice, crisp stack of Harriet Tubmans on the Cowboys playing in their first conference title game since January 1996.

That was the year the Cowboys were coached by the great Barry Switzer, and the same year Donald Trump bought the Miss Universe organization.

Unlike 2007, the last time the Cowboys had home field advantage in the playoffs, there is no Wade Phillips present to fall asleep in front of the class.

The only component of the 2016 team who should be nervous is Jerry Jones, because you just never know — injuries, and a defense that asks its friends on offense and special teams to be perfect.

The Cowboys were built around their offense and specifically an offensive line that needs to be the collective NFL MVP — but this defense has to do something other than act as an annoying speed bump on a highway.

If this defense can do anything at all, the Cowboys can reach the Super Bowl. But if it insists on being a gnat, these Cowboys under Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott could very well finish out like the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers.

That was the year the Steelers were 15-1 with rookie Ben Roethlisberger as the quarterback. They reached the AFC title game at home before allowing 41 points in a defeat against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Now, if the Cowboys can do that, this season is an unequivocal success and Jerry Jones will be named the NFL Executive of the Year for the second time in three years.

But there is a Super Bowl appearance in this club if the defense can make just a few plays.

The Cowboys are riding a 10-game winning streak, a four-game streak without forcing a turnover, and a two-game streak without a sack. All three are equally impressive.

Winning 10 consecutive games is a franchise single-season record. They have not forced a turnover despite the fact that opposing quarterbacks have attempted a combined 161 passes in the past four games.

They have not forced a turnover in a stretch of games that includes the Cleveland Browns, who have not won a game and rank fourth in the NFL in giveaways this season.

In the Cowboys’ win against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw 53 times and the Cowboys could not bring him down once.

The last time the Cowboys recorded a sack was late in the third quarter at Pittsburgh when DeMarcus Lawrence reached Roethlisberger.

No one expected this defense to be much more than average, but it has to do more than this.

The problem is the same they had in 2014: There is no proven, or reliable, pass rusher. The closest is Lawrence, who upon returning from his four-game suspension to start the season has not looked like the man who had eight sacks last season.

The Cowboys have 20 sacks this season, the third fewest in the NFL. The team leader in that category is Tyrone Crawford with 3.5 — that’s good for 60th in the NFL.

In regards to this specific issue, it remains unchanged since the team cut DeMarcus Ware after 2013. I thought it was the right call, but 20.5 sacks in Denver later says the D in DWare does not stand for Done.

Whether it was Rolando McClain, Randy Gregory or Greg Hardy, the Cowboys still can’t find a reliable pressure player.

Linebacker Sean Lee is great, but he is not a rusher. And Jaylon Smith is not doing anything until 2017.

It does help the Cowboys lead the NFL in time of possession, and despite the lack of plays from the defense, the team still is plus-3 in turnover margin.

Safety Barry Church is expected to play tonight against the Vikings after missing the last four games with a broken forearm, and Jerry said this week cornerback Morris Claiborne will return at some point this season.

The Cowboys are good enough to reach the NFC title game, and if their defense just gives them a little bit more, there is a Super Bowl appearance to be made from this group.

Imagine how big the bandwagon will be if (when?) they do.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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