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Cowboys have NFL's best record because they own the fourth quarter

The Cowboy' dynamic duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott seems to save their best for last. Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- You want to know why the Dallas Cowboys have the NFL’s best record and became the first team to lock up a playoff berth? They own the fourth quarter.

This team has a knack for making plays at winning time. And it’s not just one guy or one unit. It’s the entire team.

Look at the Cowboys' 17-15 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, as gritty at it comes considering Dallas' offense had season lows in yards (264), passing yards (124), first downs (13), third-down conversions (1-for-9) and points. Oh, and tight end Jason Witten had his streak of 130 consecutive games with a reception snapped and didn't have a single target.

But with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter, a team that hadn’t forced a turnover in 19 quarters -- spanning four games and 32 days -- came up with one.

Minnesota return man Adam Thielen muffed a punt as linebacker Kyle Wilber and receiver Vince Mayle crowded him, and Wilber recovered at the Minnesota 8.

Dak Prescott threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant on the next play for a 14-9 Cowboys lead.

On the Vikings’ next possession, one of the NFL’s worst pass rushes came up with a sack, as linebacker Anthony Hitchens wrecked Minnesota’s drive and forced a punt.

The Cowboys took over and Ezekiel Elliott gained 30 yards -- his longest run of the game -- on the first play, and Dallas eventually settled for a 39-yard field goal and a 17-9 lead.

That sequence of events isn’t unusual for this team. It’s the norm.

The Cowboys have five wins by 10 points or more, but in a parity-driven league, teams that can’t figure out how to get it done in the fourth quarter have a hard time making the playoffs.

In losing 10 of their final 12 games last season, the Cowboys were winning or losing by no more than a field goal in seven of those games. They lost six.

They were winning or losing by no more than a touchdown in nine games last season. They lost eight of those games.

Now you know the difference between a team with a top-five pick in the draft and one talking about the Super Bowl.

In the Cowboys' win over Baltimore, the first of three wins in 12 days, the Ravens had pulled within 24-17 in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys went on a 13-play, 72-yard drive that sucked 6:26 off the clock and ended with a field goal with 1:54 left. The Cowboys’ offensive line dominated the fourth quarter.

And who can forget Elliott scoring on runs of 14 and 32 yards in the final two minutes against Pittsburgh as the Cowboys rallied from deficits of 24-23 and 30-29 in the fourth quarter?

In Week 8 against Philadelphia, then the biggest game of the season, the Eagles led the Cowboys 23-13 in the fourth quarter.

The game-winning rally started with defensive tackle Terrell McClain forcing a fumble and defensive end Tyrone Crawford recovering it. Dallas won in overtime, pushing its record to 6-1.

The Cowboys have forced 11 turnovers -- only five teams have fewer -- but six have occurred in the fourth quarter, and 10 have come in the second half. Eight of the Cowboys’ 23 sacks have come in the fourth quarter, and 15 have come in the second half. These Cowboys don’t make a lot of plays on defense, but they tend to make them when it matters most.

Think all the way back to the Cowboys' first victory of the season, a 27-23 come-from-behind win over Washington.

Barry Church intercepted a pass in the end zone as Washington was driving and trying to put the game away. Prescott then led the Cowboys on a 11-play, 80-yard drive to pull out the win.

It was a harbinger of things to come.