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The Dallas Cowboys are officially wobbly and reeling.
No matter how much blame you want to place on the officials for penalizing them 14 times for a franchise-record 166 yards and turning the 36-33 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving Day into “throw up ball,” as owner Jerry Jones aptly called it, he also readily admits the Cowboys are not playing well.
The Cowboys have lost three of their last four games and are riding a two-game losing streak.
What was once a seemingly insurmountable 3.5-game lead in the NFC East they were 6-1 and the Philadelphia Eagles were 3-5 is down to 2.5 with the Cowboys at 7-4 and Eagles at 5-7. The Washington Football Team (4-6) could make it a two-game lead with a win at Seattle on Monday.
And doesn’t even include being rocked by a COVID-19 outbreak within the organization that will have them without right tackle Terence Steele and four coaches in Thursday’s suddenly must-win game at the New Orleans Saints.
The Cowboys play four of their final six games on the road.
Cowboys fans, who have had their Super Bowl hopes teased and dashed countless times since their last title in 1995, are understandably nervous and feeling a little deja vu.
The Cowboys still control their destiny and remain confident, but are they doing a good job of feigning confidence?
When asked if the Cowboys have lost their swagger, running back Ezekiel Elliott responded with an emphatic, “No”.
The Cowboys know that that belief doesn’t extend too far beyond the locker room.
“The sense is I’m sure a bunch of people are jumping off the bandwagon, which is fine with us, because we know what we’re capable of,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We know the team we have. More importantly, we know the men that are in that locker room. That’s the most important thing is just our belief in each other. That’s not going anywhere. It’s not fading.”
Safety Jayron Kearse said all the players have is each other, and they are going to continue to believe and continue to fight even if others have given up.
“Things will turn and then the outside world will have our back again,” Kearse said. “It just always goes that way.
“It’s unfortunate. When you lose, it’s always this, always that, always this, always that. But when we win, ‘it’s Cowboys this, Cowboys that.’ ... We’re not playing for anybody else or care about their opinions because honestly, if it was that easy, they would be doing the same thing.”
The Cowboys’ belief is rooted in how they played early in the season when they reeled off six straight wins following the season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s based on the knowledge that they have not been the same team on offense during the current two-game losing streak as it came without their top two receivers in Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb.
Cooper missed the 19-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Raiders’ loss with COVID-19. Lamb missed the second half of the Chiefs game and all of the Raiders game with a concussion.
Both are expected to return for Thursday’s game at the New Orleans Saints.
The Cowboys also expect defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been out since the season opener with a fractured ankle, to play against the Saints, while defensive end Randy Gregory (calf) and defensive tackles Brent Urban and Neville Gallimore should be available for the final stretch following a 10-day layoff.
“The way we are playing right now I feel good that we’re 7-4 because I know what we’ve got coming,” Jones said. “I know we’re not playing well. I feel like we can address where we’re not playing well. We got some guys coming in here who are going to be fresh, ready to go.
“We’re going to be better. We could use some of that talent that we didn’t have with Lamb, and without Cooper out there. Everybody sees that, and we can use that.”
The Cowboys also know it’s not just about getting players back; they also have to play better.
The running game, which was once the foundation of the offense, has sputtered of late. They have rushed for fewer than 100 yards in four of the last five games and they averaged just 3.2 yards per carry against the Raiders.
“We’ve obviously been very successful running the football in the first part of the season so people are gearing up for it. So that’s definitely part of it,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We just had plays where an individual there or an individual there didn’t execute the block or it just wasn’t quite what it needed to be [against the Raiders]. We need to stay on top of our self-scout because I think just like anything at this point in the year people are locked into your formations and your run tendencies and when we run and how we run.”
Running against the Saints won’t be easy.
But while the Cowboys are frustrated and disappointed in how they have played of late, they are confident they are up to the challenge and ready to finish the season with a flourish.
“Urgency is not a problem,” McCarthy said. “We’re obviously very disappointed. We were frustrated with the loss. But we have the belief and the confidence and the understanding of what we need to do to improve. There’s no blink in our football team. The energy and excitement of who we are is there.
“We feel our best days are in front of us.”