Mac Engel

Here we go again: .500 record, Alex Smith injury opens door for Cowboys to win NFC East

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) moves past Atlanta Falcons strong safety Damontae Kazee (27) on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Atlanta.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) moves past Atlanta Falcons strong safety Damontae Kazee (27) on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Atlanta. AP

We are well into November, which means the Cowboys are making their annual assault on a .500 record, and in doing so they can actually contemplate winning the NFC East.

Better to prepare your brain, and heart, that they won’t pull this off, of course, because you know how this all normally goes.

Forces more powerful than Jerry Jones are conspiring against you to create this playoff scenario a possibility. To give you hope, and maybe once again to ruin your holiday season more than just a visit from relatives.

Alas, the coach who cannot be fired has done it again as the Cowboys rallied to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 22-19 on Sunday in the A-T-L.

Jason Garrett’s deep affection for place kickers paid off on Sunday. In their final possession in a tie game, the Cowboys had time, and timeouts, to go for a touchdown. Instead, Garrett played for another Brett Maher field goal try.

Unlike the game in Washington earlier this season, Maher made this kick. His 42-yard field goal with no time remaining drifted just inside the upright for the win.

Time for a new T-shirt: The Cowboys have won consecutive games for the first time since December of last year. Give the Boys credit; they did this on the road in Philly and here in Atlanta. They turned a 3-5 record into .500, and hope.

“Our playoffs started a few weeks ago,” safety Jeff Heath said. “Unfortunately the way we played earlier in the season, we allowed ourselves no margin for error. It’s going to be that way for the rest of the season. We are aware of where we are in our division and who we have left on our schedule, and we have to win these next few games.”

By “few” he means pretty much all but one.

How they won on Sunday was typical of a team destined for mediocrity; the Cowboys took a 19-9 lead with 12:26 remaining in the game, only to gag that away when the best part of their team, their defense, could suddenly not make a stop.

Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones, perhaps the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’, caught a 34-yard touchdown pass despite tight coverage by defensive back Chido Awuzie with under two minutes remaining in the game to tie the score.

“It’s just getting your head around; sometimes when you’re out there, and a guy like that running, you want to play the ball but looking back I think I was in pretty good position,” said Awuzie, who managed to get his hands on the ball as Jones was catching it but could not break it up. “I could have definitely got my head around and made a play on that ball. That’s hindsight, he got the better of me.”

What should have been an nice-and-easy last few minutes turned into another test for Maher.

Around the same time the Cowboys were taking the game against the Falcons for good, the NFC East leading Washington Redskins lost their starting quarterback to a nasty leg injury.

It does not look like Alex Smith will be available to play against the Cowboys in four days on Thanksgiving. Now his backup, former Texas great Colt McCoy, has diced up the Cowboys before, but he’s not the starter for a reason. The Redskins lost 23-21 at home against the Houston Texans, and now are just one game ahead of the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East.

As long as the defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott, continue to do what he did on Sunday, the Cowboys will have a chance.

For most of the afternoon on Sunday, the Cowboys defense did their part; they sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times, and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had his second interception in as many games.

“We want to be known as a defense that can get the ball,” he said. “(The defensive line) really stepped up this week.”

Zeke ran for 122 yards and one touchdown, and caught seven passes for an additional 79 yards. With each game, Zeke and his line have improved.

This is the formula, and if the Cowboys execute it, they have hope.

The Cowboys are once again .500, and, for now, they can win the NFC East.

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