The Cowboys flew to Arizona on Christmas Eve 1995. They played The Monday Night Game that year on Christmas Day. As the flight departed they knew the truth, all they had to do was beat the Cardinals and they would clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It would be a Merry Christmas, indeed. There were other scenarios that involved both San Francisco and Philadelphia losing, but that was unlikely. There was no connection to the Internet in the air in those days, but as soon as the plane landed a cheer went up among the players and coaches as they learned that both the Eagles and 49ers had, in fact, lost.
So the Cowboys did not need to win the game in the desert. Yet they felt like they did. December had started with back-to-back losses to Washington and Philadelphia, so a loss to the Cardinals would mean they were 1-3 in the all important last four games of the regular season. The Cowboys won that night 37-13 and were back in the Valley of the Sun a month later to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX.
Yes, my young Cowboys fans, once upon a time the Cowboys played in Super Bowls.
The memory serves as a reminder of how much fun meaningful December football can be and of how important the month of December is to a team with Super Bowl aspirations. From the owner on down, the Cowboys start every season feeling like they are competing for a Super Bowl. But for most of the past 26 years they haven’t been. This year they are! The NFC is wide open, and Dallas beat the two teams that played in last year’s Super Bowl with their back-up quarterback at the helm.
This year December will include five games, and four of them will be against the NFC South. They play the Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Titans. The AFC South is arguably the worst division in the NFL this year. The NFC East is arguably the best. The best team in the best division, the Eagles, will be in Arlington on Christmas Eve this year. That will be the toughest test of December in a year when the regular season does not end until Jan. 8th.
If the Cowboys hope to be playing beyond Jan. 9th they must have a good December. After a great start to the year they reached the halfway point of the season looking up at the Eagles and the Giants in the division.
There are two things that must happen for the Cowboys to finish the regular season strong. First, they must run the ball. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has a wonderfully creative approach to play calling. But the truth is that double reverses, flea flickers and half back passes are not what win games in the playoffs. When the Cowboys beat the Bengals in September they used 27 running plays to set up 31 Cooper Rush pass plays. That balance led to a 20-17 win.
Beating the defending Super Bowl champion Rams on the road was even more impressive. Thirty four running plays accounted for 163 yards. Ezekiel Elliott carried it 22 times for 78 yards, Tony Pollard burst onto the scene averaging 10.8 yards per carry. He toted the rock just eight times for 86 yards. With that kind of ground control 10 completions for 102 yards was more than enough for a 22-10 victory. So they must run the ball.
But, even more importantly, they must stop the run.
The old saying in sports is, “offense sells tickets, defense wins games.” The Cowboys held the Rams to 38 yards rushing in that October win. The Bengals managed just 89 yards against a stout Cowboys defense. Contrast that to the loss last month in Green Bay. The Packers ran the ball 39 times for 207 yards and came back from a two touchdown deficit to win in overtime.
Because of some lesser opponents this can be a December to remember for the Cowboys. To make it a memorable season they must make a playoff run.
Emphasis on run and stopping the run.