Cowboys look to build on Cincy win, finish rough year strong

First-year Dallas coach Mike McCarthy draws parallels to his debut in Green Bay when the Packers finished a rough year with four straight victories on the way to a strong second season.

The Cowboys (4-9) have a chance to do the same after beating Cincinnati 30-7 to start the final quarter of 2020, although the path to the playoffs got significantly narrower with Washington’s win over San Francisco, Dallas’ opponent Sunday.

“I thought that it was one of the foundation blocks for my time in Green Bay, those last four wins,” McCarthy said. “Because it was something that we built on, talked about and emphasized throughout the whole offseason.”

The Packers lost in overtime in the NFC championship game in McCarthy’s second year to start a run of reaching the playoffs nine times in 10 seasons, winning a Super Bowl along the way.

That track record is why Dallas hired the 57-year-old, only to watch the first season disintegrate into a pandemic-disrupted, injury-plagued disaster notable for some questionable coaching decisions along the way. The front office remains firmly behind McCarthy.

“I am surprised that someone would question Mike, these unprecedented situations that everyone’s been in on top of that,” vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said on his radio show Monday. “If you look at his track record and his pedigree, he’s consistently won year in and year out. We have the utmost confidence that this ship is going to be righted quickly.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Andy Dalton is finally building some continuity in Dallas’ offense after settling in as Prescott’s replacement. The first stint was interrupted during the second game when he went out with a concussion that sidelined him the next week. Dalton then missed one more game because of a positive COVID-19 test.

The Cowboys are 2-2 in his past four starts with Dalton coming off a season-high passer rating of 122.6 after going 16 of 23 for 185 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I feel like we’ve been building some momentum, and we’ve got to keep that rolling,” said Dalton, who beat the Bengals in his return to Cincinnati after nine years as their starter.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Dallas is tied for the most passing touchdowns allowed (28) and tied for the third-fewest interceptions (five) after another game without a pick. Brandon Allen had by far his best game for Cincinnati, which is without No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow because of a knee injury. If not for an injury that left him hobbling and affected his throwing on his last drive trailing 20-7, Allen might have put the Bengals in position for a fourth-quarter rally.

STOCK UP

The Cowboys finally dominated turnover margin with a plus-3 showing — fumbles on Cincinnati’s first three possessions. Dallas has been last in the NFL much of the season in that category, but probably won’t finish there. The Cowboys are in a three-way tie for the second-worst margin at minus-10, with Denver at minus-18.

STOCK DOWN

Ezekiel Elliott could fall short of 1,000 yards in a 16-game season when the two-time rushing champion hasn’t had fewer than 1,357 in his three previous full seasons. Elliott has 832 yards with three games to go, and the 2016 All-Pro’s per-carry average is under 4 yards (3.9) for the first time.

Elliott needed a season-best 26-yard run against the Bengals to finish with 48 yards, the fifth time this season he’s been held to less than 50 — already the most times in one season in his career. A dramatic change for the better seems unlikely with Elliott nursing a calf injury.

INJURIES

Depth at cornerback continues to get tested, with Rashard Robinson (knee) and Saivion Smith (hand) the latest to go down, although they returned later in against Cincinnati. The Cowboys have been hoping Anthony Brown (ribs) and rookie Trevon Diggs (broken foot) could return. They could use both.

KEY NUMBER

400 — Points allowed so far (30.8 per game). The franchise record is 436 from 2010, the last time the Cowboys were caught up in a coaching change. Jason Garrett replaced Wade Phillips midseason.

NEXT STEPS

With a Dallas loss or Washington win in any of the three remaining games, the Cowboys can’t make the playoffs as NFC East champions. One more win by Arizona eliminates the remote possibility of Dallas finishing 7-9 and getting the NFC’s seventh playoff spot in the expanded postseason format.

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