Let’s just cut to the chase.
No one can wait until the Christmas Eve showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium.
It is literally the game of the season in the NFC and the game of the decade in the division.
No recent match up has felt bigger in terms of hate, fervor and anticipation between two contending teams.
But before we unwrap that early gift before Santa sneaks into town, the Cowboys and their fans must weather an upcoming three-game stretch against the Indianapolis Colts (4-7-1) on Sunday, then the Houston Texans (1-9-1 ) on Dec. 11 and at the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7).
It should be three yawners.
And the Cowboys should be the hottest team in the NFL heading into the Eagles game, riding a five game winning streak and winners of seven of the last eight since a loss to the Eagles back Oct. 16 in the last game with backup Cooper Rush at quarterback before starting Dak Prescott returned from missing five games with a fractured thumb.
They should be.
Well, that’s up to the Cowboys themselves.
The only thing that stands in their way is their penchant for self-inflicted wounds with untimely penalties and turnovers.
And the team has begun addressing the issue by taking players out of practice for a play, showing them on video before the team for in game penalties and calling each out for mistakes and that includes Prescott.
Coach Mike McCarthy took players off the field at practice when he was in Green Bay and has started the practice again with the Cowboys.
While Prescott’s high number of interceptions are disappointing and must be curtailed — he’s had five in the last five games since returning from injury and four in two of the last three games — most were considered competitive picks and are not considered deal breakers by McCarthy.
“It’s the decision ones that you go, ‘Whoa we don’t want those’,” McCarthy said. “And Dak is a good decision maker. Trust me, these guys get tired of me talking about ball security and turnover differential cause its a huge part of our success, it always will be because we put the time into it. He needs to take those throws No. 1. The decisions were correct you just have some of those things.”
The thing the Cowboys must fix are their penalty issues.
One year after leading the league in penalties with 127 for 1,103 yards and making it the focal point of the off season, the Cowboys are back near the top of the naught list with the officials.
They are second in the NFL with 83 penalties for 626 yards through 11 games.
In their 28-20 win over the New York Giants on Thanksgiving, they had a season-high 13 flags, many of which helped the game be closer than it should have been. And Prescott threw two interceptions.
“I think the biggest thing is just always focus on cleaning your own house, whether it’s giving the ball away, the pre-snap penalties, the combative penalties,” McCarthy said. “For as many self-inflicted mistakes as we had (against the Giants) and still to win the division game I think it speaks to our football team’s ability to overcome adversity all the way through. It’s something that we need to learn from but in the same breath, there are some things we got to really eliminate coming down the stretch here. Because you know, November and December football is really the prelude to the playoffs so we got to get cleaned up in a couple things.”
Again, the thing Cowboys are focusing on cleaning up most are the penalties, particularly the pre-snap penalties that have been particular bugaboo for them this season.
Particularly frustrating is the number of false start penalties that have occurred over the last month while the Cowboys offense has performed at season-best efficiency and production with Prescott back.
“I actually went back and reviewed all of the penalties with video and went through every one of them,” McCarthy said. “Went through our 36 pre-snap penalties on the year. I mean, it’s a product of how we’re doing… we’re doing a lot of things in that area where we need to be better, clearly. So just highlighting specific things that have occurred but more importantly how we can be better. But if you look at our efficiency last month, particularly on offense, where a lot of these pre-snap penalties occurred, we’re definitely hitting the target.
“Trust me I’m clearly on top of the things that are not going well. Penalty prevention and education is something we’re spending more time on but I don’t want to lose the aggressiveness of our play style in our efficiency that we’ve really established this past month. I think if we can continue to get better, which we have improved over the last three weeks, we can continue to get better, it’s all in front of us. So we are putting in the time. I can promise you that.”
The Cowboys are already working towards that. In addition to calling each other out and removing players from practice, right Terence Steele said the offensive line got together this week to work on the false start and the perceived cadence issues with Prescott.
“We did some cadence work, all just trying to get off on the cadence,” Steele said. “We just need to keep doing that and we’ll get it right. … We were out on the field … and coaches were trying to mimic Dak (Prescott’s) snap count — just getting reps there with that …
“Throughout the week we’ll do a full line with Dak at QB to give us his cadence, so that we can get used to [it].”
According to Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, it comes down to focus.
The team needs to focus better and that goes double in this three-game stretch against the three bad teams like the Colts, the Texans and the Jaguars.
“I feel really good where the team is,” Elliott said. “I think we’re getting better every week and stacking success. The next step is just to clean up our play, cleaning up our penalties. Stop shooting ourselves in the foot and stop playing against ourselves.”
Oh feel pretty good about where the team is going into setting up for you here. Oh yeah, you know, I feel so really good. You know what a team is I think we’re getting better every week I staggered success figuring it out here and there. Like I said, the next step is just Clean up, clean up our play, clean up. Stop shooting ourselves in the foot and you know, stop playing against myself.