Somehow, someway the Dallas Cowboys have weathered the storm of Sean Lee’s hamstring injury to climb to the top of the NFC East standings at 7-5 with the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas fans expected to see another disappointing effort in the playoff stretch run when Lee left his team’s 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints and the Cowboys gave up a franchise-record 625 yards on Sunday Night Football. But now that Lee is back and the Cowboys are riding a two-game winning streak, there’s no reason Dallas shouldn’t clinch a 22nd division title.
Let’s face it — the Cowboys and Eagles are on a collision course to meet in Arlington on the final Sunday of the regular season in a winner-take-all bout for the NFC East crown. In the past two seasons, the Cowboys have lost such contests on the road against the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, so it’s only natural that a team with luck like Dallas’ to go for the trifecta against Philly this year.
Many Cowboys fans will point to the last time these two teams met in what was essentially a division title game: a 44-6 route by the Eagles in Philadelphia in 2008. The difference between this year and the recent Week 17 catastrophes is the Cowboys are at home. Now in seasons past, that wouldn’t matter because AT&T Stadium (formerly Cowboys Stadium) wasn’t any kinder to the ‘Boys than any other NFL arena, but this year is different; Dallas is 5-1 at home in 2013.
But the biggest factor here is Lee, who was among the league leaders in tackles before his injury, and still ranks 22nd after missing the last two and a half games. As impressive as those numbers are, that’s not even the greatest way in which Lee impacts Dallas; in nine full games with their defensive captain on the field, the Cowboys generated 21 turnovers (2.3 average), which was the most in the NFL during that stretch. In two and a half games without Lee, Dallas managed four takeaways (1.3 average).
One additional generated turnover per game by an NFL defense is monumental — it’s season-changing. Over the course of an entire season, that’s the difference in six victories. So for a team like Dallas that needs to win every game from here on out, including two against slumping teams with dicey quarterback situations, Lee’s return is crucial.
During his absence, the Cowboys discovered that Kyle Wilber is more than capable of playing strong side linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme after he was moved to defensive end in the switch from the 3-4 and then back to outside linebacker when Lee went down. That means that Lee’s return should mean even more pressure on opposing offenses now that Dallas’ young linebacking corps is becoming a weapon for the Cowboys.
With games left against the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Redskins and Eagles, having a healthy, play-making defense could mean the difference in 11-5 and 9-7 for the Cowboys, which could prevent a winner-take-all Week 17 bout if the Eagles stumble against the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and/or Bears before then. Regardless, the Cowboys once again control their own destiny as December begins, but they’re a lot more confident in their playoff chances with Lee on the field, as they should be.