Super Bowl path for Cowboys runs mostly through Dallas

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Of course, Mike McCarthy was watching the Philadelphia Eagles play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, just like he assumed everyone else in the Dallas Cowboys organization was doing. And as soon as the game ended, his phone lit up with text messages.

Then he took a breath of that new fresh air.

Because just like that, his Cowboys were no longer the outsiders in the NFC East race staring at a postseason filled with games on the road where they’ve struggled all season. As soon as the Cardinals shocked the Eagles 35-31, the Cowboys were just one win away from the division title, the No. 2 seed, and home games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

And for the Cowboys, who went 8-0 at home this regular season and have won 16 straight games at AT&T Stadium over a two-year span, it changed everything about their outlook in the new year.

“I’m laughing because I think you’re trying to get me to say ‘I told you so’ — ‘just get to 11 wins and it’ll work out,'” McCarthy joked. “But I don’t want to be that guy.”

What McCarthy actually said two weeks ago, when the Cowboys were 10-4, was “I just think it’s important to keep focus on getting to the 11th win and then I think there’ll be some clarity on what we need to do.” But he’s right: There is plenty of clarity now that the Cowboys are 11-5.

All they need to do is beat the Washington Commanders — a 4-12 team that hasn’t won since Nov. 5 — in Landover, Md., on Sunday and they’ll win their second division title in the last three years and ensure that their wild-card and divisional-round games will be played in Arlington, Tex. And it is impossible to overstate what a huge advantage that will be in the chase for the Super Bowl, because the Cowboys have been a completely different team at home all year long.

It’s not just that they’re undefeated there. It’s that they’ve outscored opponents 299-127. That’s a point differential of plus-172 and an average score of 37-16. On the road, they’ve been outscored 172-176 — a point differential of minus-6 and an average loss of 22-21.

And there’s a marked difference in quarterback Dak Prescott in Arlington, too. At home, he’s completed 73.3 percent of his passes, has thrown 22 touchdown passes with just three interceptions and has a passer rating of 120.0. On the road, his completion percentage drops to 62.6, he’s thrown just 10 touchdown passes with five interceptions and his passer rating drops all the way to 87.1.

On the road, the Cowboys were 0-4 against teams either in the playoffs or still in the hunt, losing at San Francisco (42-10), Philadelphia (28-23), Buffalo (31-10) and Miami (22-20). At home, they went 4-0, beating the Los Angeles Rams (43-20), Seattle Seahawks (41-35), Eagles (33-13) and Detroit Lions (20-19).

Should the Cowboys feel proud after beating the Lions?

Should the Cowboys feel proud after beating the Lions?

And while it’s true that they didn’t exactly dominate the Lions on Saturday night, and needed an inexcusable blunder by the officials on what would’ve been a game-winning, two-point conversion for Detroit to seal the win, McCarthy saw that as a good thing, too.

“If you look at the way our season has gone, our football team has needed adversity and we have clearly been put in those situations the last three weeks,” McCarthy said of a stretch that included losses in Buffalo and Miami before the win over the Lions. “I think adversity in tight ballgames is what football is all about. Obviously, we would’ve liked to win them all, but the adversity in some of the games we’ve been in will serve us well moving forward.”

That might be true, but what will really serve the Cowboys best is the confidence they have in their enormous home building that can pack in nearly 100,000 people. They haven’t lost there since last year’s opener, on Sept. 11, 2022 — 19-3 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since Prescott was a rookie in 2016, the Cowboys have gone 47-18.

Of course, they also lost twice at home in the playoffs in the Prescott Era, so nothing is guaranteed. The Cowboys are only 4-4 at home in the playoffs since their last Super Bowl championship 28 years ago. 

But this unexpected homestand — assuming they beat the Commanders on Sunday — is still better than the alternative. Their reversal of fortune on Sunday could be a season-changing moment.

“Sometimes an opportunity comes,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, “and you’ve got to go get it.”

Dak Prescott, Cowboys survive vs. Jared Goff, Lions

Dak Prescott, Cowboys survive vs. Jared Goff, Lions

At home, they can. On the road, there was little reason to believe they would since they hadn’t won a big game outside of Texas all season long. They would’ve been forced to win at least two games in Philadelphia, San Francisco or Detroit, and no one expected they could do that. Now the only remaining road trip they’ll have to take is to San Francisco for the NFC Championship game, though only if both teams get that far.

It just seems much more reasonable to project the Cowboys to get there now, if for no other reason than they feel like they’ve got the best home-field advantage in the NFL. They probably needed to be home for the playoffs more than any team in the league.

“We put ourselves in position to win the division and the No. 2 seed,” McCarthy said. “That’s a good place to be.”

For the Cowboys, it’s the best place to be, especially in the playoffs. It might be the only place where their Super Bowl dreams could stay alive.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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