© Danielle Parhizkaran/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you're the Dallas Cowboys, this part of the season is where your Michelins have to meet the asphalt. Having narrowly lost to Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to start the 2021 regular season, the Cowboys rode an offensive surge led by Dak Prescott and his smörgåsbord of weapons to a six-game win streak that was complemented mightily by the emergence of rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons as the league's newest defensive phenom and a blistering interception tally from former second-round pick Trevon Diggs that is now just one step away from making history.

The good times came to a screeching halt, however, when they consumed their own Velveeta before facing the Denver Broncos in Week 9, and that led to a November to forget -- floundering to a 1-3 record in that month. Because of those midseason failings, a December many thought would see the Cowboys operating on autopilot as they flew toward the NFC East crown became anything but, with each of their final six regular season games instantly becoming must-wins, be it to clinch the division crown, a playoff berth and/or keep them in striking distance for the top seed in the NFC.

It's the final stretch of what still has the chance to be a very, very special year for Dallas, but only if they finish their food going forward, and that also means not allowing lesser teams to have hope in games when there shouldn't be any left for them, along with squaring off against another NFC heavyweight before the regular season concludes.

Let's take a look at how they can scrape the plate clean en route to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI.

Key schedule observations 

  • Can clinch NFC East with win in rematch vs. WFT
  • Two division battles in final three contests
  • Two-game homestand in final three contests

Biggest need: Return to orbit on offense

Believe it or not, the Cowboys are still top-2 in points scored per game, racking up an average of 28.6 points per game, but that's been fueled largely by an electric defense that scores points as well as take the ball away, while Dak Prescott and the offense have struggled mightily to consistently contribute to the scoring efforts on a weekly basis. 

If that doesn't give you an idea of just how Goliathan (new word, go with it) the Cowboys can/will be when/if they finally begin delivering complete games, nothing will. What the defense has been able to do in 2021 -- even before becoming whole in December and reaching an unthinkable level of terror -- is a hearty salute to what Dan Quinn has been able to do in only his first year with the club, flipping them from the worst in franchise history to one of the best to ever suit up in Dallas, but offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has seen the luster wear off of his usually prolific play calling in the second half of the season, and players failing to execute only exacerbate the issue (e.g., CeeDee Lamb's drops, Prescott's late-game turnovers, etc.).

Hope is far from lost on that side of the ball, though. For while their Week 12 effort against the Raiders ended up being a "too little, too late" type of deal, you saw Prescott go on a tear in the fourth quarter to force overtime and nearly a win after being down as much as 11 points in the third quarter. The offense mostly sputtered again in New Orleans the following week, but the touchdown drive that featured a surgical dissection by Prescott with big plays from Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup served as a reminder there's still a V12 under that hood. 

In their rematch against the Giants, their rushing attack leaped out of the grave behind a healthier Ezekiel Elliott, the return of Tony Pollard and Connor Williams being reinstalled as starting left guard, and Dalton Schultz again emerged as a primary target for Prescott who can relieve defensive pressure on the other weapons.

The sooner they can get back to lighting up scoreboards, the better, because building momentum and chemistry for the playoffs is paramount, for while this is most certainly a defense that can carry an average offense to and through the Super Bowl (it's been done many times in NFL history), the Cowboys know they'd be a much tougher out in the postseason if while the offense can fix their red zone woes (the biggest Achilles heel at the moment) and match serve with a defense that keeps finding ways to give them extra possessions.

Current standings

  • 10-4 overall, 4-0 division, 8-1 conference
  • No. 1 in NFC East
  • No. 2 in NFC 

The Cowboys sit at 10-4 on the season after righting the ship in a big way in December -- at least defensively -- against the Saints in New Orleans, then walking into FedEx Field and handing the Washington Football Team a loss (as promised by head coach Mike McCarthy), before thumping the New York Giants in the series rematch at MetLife Stadium. It starts the month of December the right way after a brutal November that saw them drop three of four games to abruptly halt a six-game win streak. 

It also keeps them dug in atop the NFC East and within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the NFC, owned at the moment by the Green Bay Packers (11-3), who was the only top-5 team other than the Cowboys (10-4) and Los Angeles Rams (10-4) to not stumble in Week 15. The Cowboys jumped from No. 4 to No. 2 last week, thanks to a three-way tie in overall record with the Cardinals and the Bucs, which negates the head-to-head tiebreaker the latter holds over Dallas.

The Yellow Brick Road

The Arizona Cardinals fell from No. 1 to No. 4 after being boat raced by the Detroit Lions, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered their fourth loss after the Saints marched into Raymond James Stadium and not only swept them, but completely shut out their offense. Things got much worse for those two teams after the game, when the Cardinals found out they'd be without All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins for the remainder of the regular season, and the Bucs discovering they'd lost Chris Godwin (a 1,000-yard receiver in 2021) to a torn ACL that sidelines him until 2022 and starting running back Leonard Fournette, who could finish the regular season on injured reserve.

Having their full complement of weapons on both offense and defense -- the status of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith still on a week-to-week status -- the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East crown by defeating Washington in the Week 16 rematch, and they're in a great spot to make a run at the top seed in the NFC. Hell, they're such a virtual lock for the division crown at the moment (>99%) that they could lose to WFT on Sunday and still win the division, if either the Eagles lose to the Giants (again) or the Cowboys clinch a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Eagles (something they were unable to do in Week 15). 

For clarity, strength of schedule and strength of victory are two different items. For while strength of schedule involves the entire win-loss record of every single opponent on a team's schedule, strength of victory is just that: the entire win-loss record of opponents on a team's schedule that were defeated by that team (i.e., it deletes the win-loss record of opponents the team lost to). That means that with a full plate of games set to take place before the Cowboys host Washington in primetime, there's a chance Dallas could clinch the division before they even take the field on Sunday, because SoV will fluctuate in one direction or the other between them and the Eagles. 

Take a look below for a breakdown of how the NFL tiebreaker rules work, in descending order of judgment. 

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four
  4. Strength of victory
  5. Strength of schedule
  6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed
  7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed
  8. Best net points in conference games
  9. Best net points in all games
  10. Best net touchdowns in all games
  11. Coin toss

Again, thanks to aforementioned conference-best record of 8-1, the Cowboys currently own any and all three-way tiebreakers as well as a two-way tiebreaker against any NFC team except for the Bucs. They will continue to if they run the table to finish the season and, thanks to that, a clear path is set for how to either steal away the No. 1 seed or, at minimum, to remain the No. 2 seed heading into the postseason.

To gain No. 1 seed:

  • Win out + Packers suffer a fourth loss 

To remain No. 2 seed:

  • Win out + Bucs suffer a fifth loss OR
  • Win out + Rams win out 

If the Cowboys, Rams and Bucs all win out but the Packers suffer just one loss (as noted), all four would finish 13-4 but, again, the Cowboys would finish with the best conference record and, as such, they'd be awarded the top seed in the NFC; and tiebreaker rules would then go on to determine who lands a No. 2 through No. 4, based on the above listed criteria.

It truly is a Royal Rumble between these four teams to determine who'll land a first-round bye and home-field advantage, and in a postseason that now only awards a bye week to the No. 1 seed, while also expanding the playoff field to seven teams per conference. Yes, this is all complex, but the plan itself is simple for the Cowboys: mount up, sweep the division to end the season and then wait to see if the road to Super Bowl LVI will run through Arlington. 

And the good news for them is, after stumbling mightily in November, they're still breathing down the necks of the other top NFC teams in December -- hoping to click their heels together and force the playoffs through AT&T Stadium.

Because there's no place like home.

Washington Football Team

Next meeting: Week 16 (AT&T Stadium) - Sunday, Dec. 26, 8:20 p.m. ET (Sunday Night Football)
2021 record through Week 15: 6-8
Series Record: 74-47-2, Cowboys lead

Who will be the quarterback when Washington takes the field against the Cowboys? Thanks to a rabid outbreak of COVID within the organization, that answer won't likely reveal itself for a few more days but, for the Cowboys, it shouldn't matter. They've already seen their electric defense thump Heinicke and then give Kyle Allen a taste in the very same Week 14 beatdown at FedEx Field, so that only leaves the possibility of facing Garrett Gilbert -- a former Cowboys quarterback the defensive unit and coordinator Dan Quinn both know inside-out from practicing against him. 

And while Gilbert was actually solid in his debut for WFT, his weapons failed him with critical drops that took at least one likely touchdown off of the table early in the contest, and usually stout wideout Terry McLaurin finished the game with only two catches for 51 yards and no touchdowns. Rewind back to his battle with Trevon Diggs and McLaurin had just two receptions for 21 yards and no touchdowns. Over the course of Washington's last four games, McLaurin has just nine receptions for 124 combined yards and no touchdowns.

In other words, WFT can't figure out how to show off one of the best wide receivers in football. Advantage Cowboys, in that capacity, as well as the fact Logan Thomas sits on injured reserve with defensive phenom Chase Young, and there's simply no way to know if any of the laundry list of players on the team's Reserve/COVID-19 list will clear protocol before Sunday after having failed to do so five days earlier. This is a game that should once again be owned by the Cowboys defense, and in a big way, giving the offense yet another shot at extra possessions they can potentially use to get their act together.

Week 14 outcome: 27-20, Cowboys
Week 16 prediction: 30-10, Cowboys

Arizona Cardinals 

Week 17 - Sunday, Jan. 2
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)
Time: 1 p.m. ET 
2021 record through Week 15: 10-4
Series record: 56-33, Cowboys lead

Ruh roh, Raggy.

Without Hopkins in the mix, the Cardinals are starting to lose feathers, and at the wrong time of the year. This matchup is still pegged as the most important one remaining on the Cowboys schedule, considering the implications in the race for the top seed in the NFC, but the scale is now balanced -- if not narrowly edging toward Dallas. For without Hopkins, Kyler Murray and his offense look completely out of sorts. That tends to happen when a perennial All-Pro weapon is stolen away from your war chest, and Murray is forced to delete the handful of in-game Hail Mary throws usually reserved for Hopkins. 

Being forced to operate with more precision has brought the ceiling down a bit on Murray, which isn't to say he's not still dangerous, because he certainly is. He can still extend drives with his speed and while keeping his eyes downfield but, again, Hopkins won't be downfield to make the Cowboys pay for crashing forward to stop him, but they might not have to, if Micah Parsons is allowed to spy Murray and show him what you get when you mix speed with brutality and wrap it in a linebacker's body. 

Also, quiet as it's kept, Murray has tossed only one touchdown to three interceptions in his last two games, and will face a Cowboys team that leads the league with 23 INTs on their resume (which could be 30+, if not for some dropped opportunities).

This should be a seriously entertaining matchup between these two teams, and especially considering it's unknown if Prescott and Co. will be firing on all cylinders again. The Cardinals defense has proven they can be dominant, but they've also allowed 30 points per game in both of their last two outings, including from Jared Goff and the now 2-11-1 Lions. This one could go either way, also factoring in how well Murray plays at AT&T Stadium, and I'm left wondering if a late-game mistake by Dallas and/or a questionable call by the officials hands them a gut-wrenching loss.

Prediction: 27-24, Cardinals

Philadelphia Eagles 

Week 18 - Sunday, Jan. 9
Location: Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia, PA)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
2021 record through Week 15: 7-7
Series Record: 71-54, Cowboys lead

And here come the Eagles, they said. They were wrong, after seeing the Eagles lose to the Giants, but now they've defeated Washington so it's probably time for the talking heads to dust off that storyline yet again. To their credit, Philadelphia won three games in a four-game stretch from late October to late November before losing to Big Blue. Without Jalen Hurts, who sat out Week 13 due to injury, they were able to let Gardner Minshew have his way in a needed victory, but not before the discombobulated New York Jets were able to expose the Philly defense early and often. 

That's the same defense that allowed the Cowboys to hang 41 on them in Week 3, and Prescott would love nothing more than to use a healthy tandem of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb to sweep the Eagles, in addition to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard serving up punches in the rushing attack and, in the process, likely escorting them out of the playoff picture for good.

That is, of course, assuming the starters play in this contest, but it seems likely they would need to. At one point this season, the Cowboys had such a hefty lead in the division and were so close to grabbing the No. 1 seed that you could entertain potentially resting starters in Week 18, but no more. Their final three games are now much too important after wetting the bed for much of November, and that doesn't bode well for the Eagles -- who will probably be in a must-win situation for a possible wild card seat.

This means the Cowboys might not only need this game for a shot at the top seed, depending on how things transpire with the Cardinals, Rams and Packers, but there's the added motivation of trying to bury the playoff hopes of a bitter rival in Philadelphia. So expect the Cowboys to keep the accelerator to the floor for this one, and to do something they've been on the verge of doing at several points over the past several seasons: sweep the entire division.

Prediction: 44-17, Cowboys
Final record prediction: 12-5 overall, 6-0 division, 10-2 conference