Dec 12, 2021 - Sports

The Cowboys' path to the Super Bowl

Photo illustration of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott with blue and silver stripes trailing behind him.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Cowboys (8-4) are in a great spot, holding a two-game division lead with five games left in the NFL's inaugural 18-week season.

  • Yes, but: That lead has been dwindling for a month, and the playoff spot that once looked all but guaranteed isn't such a sure thing anymore.

How they got here: After a last-second, opening-night loss to the defending champion Buccaneers, Dallas rattled off six straight wins to take a commanding, 3.5-game division lead.

  • Since then, they've lost three of five, and their remaining schedule — the 12th-hardest in the league — leaves the door open for some divisional chaos.

State of play: The fun begins today on the road, when the Cowboys visit the Washington Football Team (6-6), which is riding a four-game win streak and has playoff aspirations of its own.

  • A win over Washington would give Dallas a three-game lead with four to play; a loss could set the stage for Washington to overtake them in the NFC East two weeks later, when the teams meet again in Dallas.
  • The end of the season is no picnic, either, with games against the NFL-best Cardinals (10-2) and the Eagles, who at 6-7 are also still in the hunt.

The big picture: The Cowboys haven't advanced to the NFC Championship since 1995, when they won their third Super Bowl in four years. Is this the team to break that streak?

3 players to watch
Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb and Dak Prescott: Photos: Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

An NFL roster goes 53 players deep. These three have been the most impactful in getting the Cowboys to this spot, and could dictate how far they'll go from here.

Dak Prescott, QB: Dak even being able to suit up in Week 1 was a minor miracle after last October's gruesome ankle injury.

  • His streaky play mirrors his team's: First six games — 73% completion rate, 16 TDs, 4 INTs; the five games since — 65% completion rate, 8 TDs (one rush), 4 INTs.
  • Despite Dak's recent struggles, the Cowboys' offense still leads the league with 416 yards per game. If he regains his early MVP form, watch out.

CeeDee Lamb, WR: The second-year wideout has lived up to his breakout potential, quickly becoming the most dynamic pass-catcher on a team full of them.

  • The quintessential deep threat, he's one of just six receivers with at least 800 yards (829) and 14 yards per reception (14.5).

Micah Parsons, LB: Trevon Diggs has the league-leading 9 INTs, but Parsons — a rookie — should already be on the shortlist for Defensive Player of the Year.

  • Wild stat: He's on pace to become the first player since Hall of Famer Bruce Smith in 1993 to post 100+ tackles (currently, 72) and 14+ sacks (10).
Breaking down the MVP race
Data: ESPN; Table: Will Chase/Axios
Data: ESPN; Table: Will Chase/Axios

Since that wild Week 1 thriller — when Tampa Bay beat Dallas in the final seconds, and Dak told Tom, "We'll see y'all again" — fans have been floating both as MVP hopefuls.

The game itself begged it:

  • Tom: 379 yards, 4 TDs.
  • Dak: 403 yards, 3 TDs.

The bottom line: Dak still has time to turn this thing around.

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