It would be wrong to suggest that Sunday's game against the Falcons is a must win. It's simply too early for that.
But this is a game the Cowboys badly need to win if they are to truly be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
The Falcons are very good team. And it will be a formidable challenge. But the Cowboys are at home. They are coming off a bye week and they have had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. Also add in the fact that they are getting several injured players back like Roy Williams, Felix Jones and Gerald Sensabaugh and will be as healthy as they have since the start of the season.
Given all that, this is a game they need to win. Just win.
How they do it doesn't matter. Ugly. Pretty. Just win. They need to show they can win back-to-back games. They need to beat a quality team at home, not to mention begin to establish the new Cowboys Stadium as a home field advantage. Remember the Cowboys (3-2) only wins have come against the Buccaneers (0-6), the Panthers (2-3) and the Chiefs (1-5). Just win.
Now they won't be out of it with a loss but don't expect any real noise from this team the rest of the season if they lose. They will stay in that win-one, lose-one meat grinder, while staring an 8-8 or 9-7 season in the face.
With the way the NFC is shaking out, 9-7 won't be good enough to make the playoffs. It wasn't good enough last year and it probably won't be good enough this year _ not with the Eagles (3-2), Falcons (4-1), Saints (6-0), Packers (3-2), Bears (3-2), Cardinals (3-2), 49ers (3-2), Vikings (5-0) and Giants (5-1) all in prime contention.
And that's if they get to 9-7. The Cowboys still have road games at the Giants, who they have already lost to at home, the Eagles, Packers and Saints. If they lose to the Falcons at home, what gives you confidence they can beat any of those teams on the road? Simply put, they badly need a win against the Falcons on Sunday. It will also give the Cowboys a tie-breaker advantage in case the two teams are locked in battle for a playoff spot at the end of the season.
It's a given that either the Saints or Falcons are going to win the NFC South with the loser vying for a wild card spot. The Saints look like the best team in the NFL right now not named the Colts. I wouldn't bet on the Cowboys going to New Orleans and getting a win in December. And with the undefeated Vikings looking the like the class of the NFC North, the road game against the Packers could also have playoff implications. But that's on the road and possibly in the cold. The Cowboys get the Falcons at home. So again this is one they need to win.
The Falcons game is the first of six until the team's next "pseudo" bye week following the Thanksgiving Day game against the Raiders. They play the Falcons and the Seahawks (2-4) at home then travel to Philadelphia and Green Bay before home games against the Redskins (2-4) and Raiders (2-4).
They will then have 10 days before the all important showdown at the Giants to start the December stretch. The Cowboys need to come out of the next six games with at least a 7-4 mark or they will have no shot at 10-6 let alone 9-7 with their tough December stretch.
That means they must win four of the next six. It doesn't matter who or how. But with four at home and two on the road against the Eagles and the Packers, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which ones are the best bets. The Falcons game is the only home game in that stretch against a team with a winning record. So again this is the critical one.
This is the one the Cowboys badly need. It starts on Sunday.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.