An 8-3 record, first place in the NFC East and a streak of six wins in seven tries, as the Dallas Cowboys have discovered, go only so far in the face of a series of other numbers.
A 19-34 record in December and January since 1996, for example; a 5-10 record for Tony Romo in December; a playoff drought of nearly 13 years. These are about as pervasive as numbers can get, inducing question of toughness and character that, in the minds of many, preempt regular season record, recent showings, and the team's insistence that past years have no bearing whatsoever on this one.
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In this case, the players are almost certainly right. But conveying this idea will grow more than slightly difficult if the team begins to slide once again; the recipe for rendering these claims impotent, as Bradie James so spiritedly said yesterday, is winning. Simple yes; easy, absolutely not. Not this season.
Merely scanning the back stretch of the schedule--which consists of road games in New York, New Orleans and Washington and home games against San Diego and Philadelphia--is enough to send some Cowboys fans shivers.
Now, such a reaction has some quantitative backing.
Gerry Fraley, in today's Dallas Morning News took to crunching numbers and deduced that, with respect to the records of opposing teams, the Cowboys have the toughest December schedule of any playoff contender (The NFL considers 21 teams to be "playoff contenders").
"Dallas's remaining opponents," Fraley writes, "are 35-20 for a .636 winning percentage." Meaning, basically, that if the Cowboys reverse the trend of ugly December slides this year, it won't be by some stroke of unimaginable luck.
"We've got as tough a schedule as anybody," said head coach Wade Phillips. "We've got three division teams and two teams [San Diego and New Orleans] that are leading their divisions. But I think we've showed that if we play well, we can play with anybody."