Why winning NFC East title isn't enough for Dallas Cowboys

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was the last person to leave his suite after Sunday’s win against the New York Giants.

With 10 victories this season, including three in a row to start the month of December, Jones’ walk to the MetLife Stadium elevator was delayed by a handful of reporters to discuss the state of his team.

Ever the optimist, Jones feels good about the Cowboys, including a defense that has produced 12 takeaways in the past three games, and dreaming of what could be down the stretch.

At 10-4, the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East if the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles tie on Tuesday or if Washington loses and the Cowboys claim a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles.

As much as winning the division is the first goal, it’s not the only goal. Jones is also paying attention to the Green Bay Packers (11-3) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4), as well as the tight NFC West race between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams in the race for home-field advantage.

“I’ve got that all around me keeping up with every nuance plus me doing it with all my family, grandchildren as well as coaches and everyone else. Everyone’s [doing it],” Jones said. “So don’t let anybody tell you they’re not looking. Hard. What I’m really excited about is I see us: We got out [of] here in good shape physically, apparently. And see us we’re a better team going home tonight than when we got here, and boy if we can do that here for 2-3 weeks and then get in these playoffs, that’s where we’ve got to try and get to: have real improvement and really be sharp as a tack.”

At the moment, the Cowboys are the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Regardless of the Washington-Philadelphia result Tuesday, the Cowboys can clinch the division by beating Washington on Sunday at AT&T Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). They can further cement their hold on the No. 3 spot by beating the Cardinals at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 2.

Moving up to No. 1 or even staying at No. 2 might be challenging but avoiding the No. 4 spot would be a good thing.

“I mean we all pay attention to it, but I just think it’s a waste of time just to go back and forth on it,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re at 10 wins, and we clearly understand what 11 wins gives us. We understand what the records are in front of us. We’ll watch it like everybody else.”

To remain in the -No. 2 seed, the Cowboys will need the Buccaneers to lose at least one of their final three games because head-to-head is the first tiebreaker in a two-way tie. Way back in September, the Cowboys lost at Tampa Bay. (The Cowboys are currently No. 2 because it is a three-way tie between Tampa Bay and Arizona and they own an 8-1 conference record.)

The top-seeded Packers close the season against the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.

McCarthy is more concerned about how COVID-19 might impact his team, considering the clusters that have popped up across the league and altered the NFL’s testing policy, but he said earlier that he would not discuss the playoffs until the 10th win.

He has it now.

“This is the time of year where things start to sort itself out,” McCarthy said. “... I’ve always believed in December football, you just got to find a way to win, but you do want to improve. You want to gain momentum, and winning in this kind of weather is a great opportunity for us to gain the confidence as we move forward.”

The confidence in the defense is as high as it has ever been with the Cowboys going back to 2009, when they closed the regular season with consecutive shutouts. But there is no satisfaction.

“We can’t call ourselves the best unless we do what we have to do and win the championship,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said.

The confidence in the offense is spotty. The running game was better (125 yards on 30 carries, with Tony Pollard picking up 74 yards on 12 carries) against the Giants. So was the third-down offense (8-for-14).

The passing game was off -- again. Drops by receiver CeeDee Lamb hurt. Receiver Amari Cooper caught two passes for eight yards. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 217 yards while completing 28 of 37 attempts. The red zone efficiency fell short as well, scoring touchdowns two times on five trips inside the New York 20 a week after scoring one touchdown in six trips against Washington.

What would it mean if the offense could meet the standards it set early in the season?

“More wins. When we get to putting up points the way we want to put them up and not just settling for field goals, some large wins,” Prescott said. “But it takes playing together, playing complementary football, rewarding those guys on defense with touchdowns when they’re getting those turnovers, and peaking at the right time is the most important.”

Peaking on the field and peeking at the standings.

“We know we made the playoffs,” Lawrence said. “Y’all know that, too. But at the end of the day it’s all about that No. 1 seed and keep driving to be the best.”