How bad is NFC East? Tony Romo's return gives Cowboys reason to believe they're still in playoff hunt

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·NFL columnist
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  • Tony Romo
    Tony Romo
    American football player

Tony Romo went up and down the sideline with that impossible-to-miss shirt on Sunday, the one emblazoned with the word "FIGHT", which seemed to symbolize little of what the Dallas Cowboys have done without their star quarterback. And when Dallas' seventh straight loss wrapped, a 10-6 clunker to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, conventional wisdom suggested 2015 was over. 

But this is the NFC East, a division in which mediocrity has been a season-long gift to Jerry Jones and his franchise. And it gave just a little bit more on Sunday, with the division-leading New York Giants losing to the New England Patriots and fanning that dim flicker of life for Dallas.

So breathe deep, Cowboys fans. The real starting quarterback is coming back next week against the Miami Dolphins, and the last gasp of the season begins now for Dallas. No matter how downtrodden anyone may be, there is no denying one basic fact: Romo's return gives the Cowboys a chance – and at 35 years old, you don't pull the plug on even the faintest opportunity.

It won't be easy, of course. There is going to be a lot of finger-pointing over who is most responsible for the seven-loss crater. Some will look at the micro-level and dissect specific games, plays and drives. They'll focus on foolish penalties or spaces where one unit or another failed. Others will look at it from a more macro-level, and question whether the front office understood the value of having a capable and experienced backup to Romo. All issues big and small will be part of a long, excruciating autopsy that will seek one finite answer: how much window is left, and how can Dallas take advantage of it?

That's all worthwhile. But start that process when the season has actually lost a pulse.

This isn't a classically tough NFC East. Top to bottom, every team has significant flaws. Dallas running the table and rattling off six or seven wins isn't a moonshot. Things have to go right, but they don't require absolute perfection. Particularly when you look at the schedules of the teams in front of the Cowboys. Consider:

The Giants – New York split with Dallas this season, so the Cowboys could feasibly finish in an 8-8 or 9-7 tie and go to a series of tiebreakers for the division. After head-to-head games, the record within the division determines the NFC East champ. After that, it's best win percentage in common games – on and on, into a headache of minutiae. Dallas' surest shot is to run the table and hope the Giants go 3-3 the rest of the way. And that's not out of the realm of possibility for New York. Every team remaining on New York's schedule is going to be either fighting like mad to secure a playoff berth or positioning itself for home-field advantage. The tough non-division opponents are the Minnesota Vikings (on the road), the New York Jets and the Carolina Panthers. That trio is a combined 21-6 right now. The in-division opponents are the Washington Redskins (on the road) and the Philadelphia Eagles in a game that will likely mean something to coach Chip Kelly. Even the Dolphins game will be dangerous, playing on the road on Monday Night Football. That schedule is not a cakewalk.

The Redskins – Washington (4-5) is feeling really good. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is tossing touchdowns like candy at a parade and there haven't been a lot of distractions lately. It's all very exciting. But Washington has four wins and none of them are against winning teams. It has the Panthers on the road next week, divisional games against the Giants and Eagles, and non-divisional games against the rejuvenated Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears. Oh, and Dallas gets to face the Redskins twice. There's plenty of potential inside all of this for a collapse.

The Eagles – Let's start with the injuries. Running back Ryan Mathews suffered a concussion Sunday. Worse yet, quarterback Sam Bradford sustained a concussion and an injured shoulder. There's a chance this team could be leaning on backup Mark Sanchez for a few weeks, although that's not the worst thing considering his experience. Philadelphia's schedule is interesting, particularly considering the next two perceived cupcakes – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions – have a little hop in their step. The Buccaneers because they're coming off a win Sunday, and Detroit because it hasn't lost a game since Martha Firestone Ford stepped in and fire hosed the front office. Sometimes teams respond to change and winning. That makes both dangerous. The rest of the non-divisional games are against the Bills, New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, and then divisional tilts against the Redskins and Giants. With or without Bradford, that is some tough sledding.

None of this is to suggest Dallas has an easy road. Not with the Panthers, Bills, Jets and Green Bay Packers highlighting the non-divisional slate. There's a solid argument that the Cowboys have a remaining schedule that is just as difficult as anyone in the division. Romo might finally be walking through that door, but he's going to have to earn every step from here on out.

And what is Romo returning to? There still isn't a consistent running game. Wideout Dez Bryant hasn't lit the world on fire since coming back (and yes, probably should have fought for that last ball against the Buccaneers). But most of Dallas' offensive problems are a function of terrible quarterback play. A team can go only so far when it is dragging an anchor, and that's what the backup situation has been for the last two months.

Defensively, I like what I see from Dallas. A lot, actually. The pass rush is in a position to keep getting better, and some elements of the secondary have been playing better than in the past. It's also a fair bet that the defense will respond favorably to not having to constantly hold the fort or make up for bad turnovers.

We could get into the mechanics of every nook and cranny for Dallas, but that isn't a worthwhile exercise sitting at 2-7 in mid November. Only one thing matters right now: Romo getting behind the center and rallying everyone. It's a lot to ask of one guy, but it's not like he lost the qualities that made him an MVP candidate last season. It's not a stretch to believe he can commandeer a talented roster and go on a torrid run.

Maybe that's why Romo was wearing that preachy T-shirt Sunday, because that's what he's ready to instill: a reason to fight. If the Cowboys can come together and follow his lead, this season isn't over. Not yet.