DALLAS - When Dolphins punter Matt Haack threw a surprising touchdown pass to kicker Jason Sanders - part of Miami's stunning 37-31 comeback victory over the Eagles on Sunday - it was a blessing for the Cowboys and a curse for Jason Garrett.
Dallas is tied for the 14th-best record in the NFL and alone in first place in the NFC East. That rather preposterous set of circumstances is a result less of geography (does Dallas really belong in the East?) than convenience and prestige. The NFC East is the model division when it comes, historically, to fan support and interest. It just happens to be a wreck in 2019, which is why Philadelphia, playing its first of four games down the stretch against teams that were 2-9, failed to gain ground on the Cowboys on Sunday.
Can Dallas win the East with a 9-7 record? Actually, that is automatic as long as it beats Philadelphia. Can the Cowboys win it at 9-7 while losing to the Eagles? The answer again is yes as long as the Eagles stumble once more against the Giants or Redskins.
Dallas may even find itself hosting a 13-3 San Francisco or Seattle team with an 8-8 record. Such is its lack of competition this year. But does any of this foster belief in owner Jerry Jones' scenario in which fairy tales come true and Garrett leads this team to a Super Bowl?
That, for me, is how the Eagles' disgraceful defeat in Miami feels like a curse for Garrett and a signal that his time is up. The only chance for Dallas to regain its footing and put on a competitive show in the playoffs was to be stretched thin, to be forced to win the final four games of the regular season.
Beat Chicago in the cold Thursday night. Hold off the Rams, who appeared to rediscover some of last year's greatness Sunday even if it was against Arizona. Defeat the Eagles, of course, in Philadelphia, and then - don't rule out this final challenge - finish the season needing to beat the Redskins to reach 10-6. I can't think of anything that interim coach Bill Callahan would like to accomplish more than to defeat Garrett, his former uneasy supervisor during his one year of Cowboys play-calling, and end his run as a head coach in Dallas.
Instead, there's a reasonable chance the Cowboys can maintain their awkward lurch toward the finish line - lose again Thursday, or perhaps to the Rams - and arrive in Philadelphia with a 7-7 record and the division still theirs for the clinching with a win.
I don't see this team being handed such a gift, and then eliminating San Francisco, Seattle or Minnesota - potential first-round opponents in Arlington - and following that with victory on the road. These Cowboys have failed to beat a good team all year, and they're going to make a run against them when it counts?
This team may still capture the East, but it comes with a disclaimer. And it's one that presages a January playoff trip that feels anything but magical.
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