NFL Winners and Losers: Once left for dead, Cowboys now in driver's seat of NFC East

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After the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 5, a Dallas Morning News column proclaimed “Jason Garrett is finished.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram assured everyone that Jerry Jones wouldn’t fire Garrett during the season. Everyone assumed it was coming at some point though.

Less than 14 days after that Cowboys loss, when it looked like their season was dead and Garrett was on borrowed time, Dallas might be the new favorite in the NFC East.

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The NFL pretty much changes week to week, but the Cowboys rising out of the grave in such a short time is still remarkable. First, they upset the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday night. Then they pulled out a win at the Atlanta Falcons while the rest of the NFC East fell apart.

The Washington Redskins lost quarterback Alex Smith for the season and lost to the Texans. The Eagles were dealt the worst loss ever for a defending Super Bowl champion.

And that leads us on this unexpected path: If the Cowboys beat Colt McCoy and the Redskins on a short week in a suddenly interesting Thanksgiving matchup, they’ll be tied for first place with five games to play. Don’t forget, even if the Eagles decide to show up this season and make a push, the Cowboys still have a huge tiebreaker edge due to their head-to-head win in Philadelphia.

Garrett was fired by everyone but Jones less than two weeks ago, and he might end up coaching a home playoff game. That’s unbelievable.

The Cowboys are getting more out of Ezekiel Elliott, who has had two big games in a row. But he has been pretty good most of the season. Dak Prescott has made some big plays lately, but has 478 passing yards the past two games. It’s not like he’s had some major breakthrough. Amari Cooper has been OK and an upgrade but has not a huge difference maker. The defense has allowed 387.5 yards per game over this mini-winning streak.

It comes down to this: There’s no magic narrative for the Cowboys’ rebirth. They’ve played a little better and won two big road games. It’s mostly just a typical NFL story. Everything changes. Constantly.

It doesn’t matter how the Cowboys saved their season, they’re here now. They’re still a flawed team, but they play in what has to be considered the NFL’s worst division from top to bottom. The Cowboys were 3-5 after the Titans loss but nobody had run away from them. The Redskins are a solid team that was always unlikely to win 10 or 11 games (and that’s even more true with Smith done for the year). The Eagles are having the worst Super Bowl hangover we’ve seen in a while. The 3-7 Giants aren’t a threat.

Relatively speaking, the Cowboys are in good shape. Their remaining games against Washington and Philadelphia are both at home. If you had to pick someone to win the NFC East right now, it’s probably the Cowboys. If that happens, you also assume Garrett will keep his job. That all would have sounded crazy after the Titans loss, but that’s the NFL. Whatever you think you know today might entirely change in the next two weeks.

Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher and teammates celebrate his game winning field goal for a 22-19 victory over the Falcons. (AP)
Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher and teammates celebrate his game winning field goal for a 22-19 victory over the Falcons. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 11 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

New Orleans Saints: The Saints have scored 45, 51 and 48 points their last three games. Since the start of October, no team in the NFL has been better.

You don’t see talented NFL teams get absolutely blown out too often. What the Saints did to the Eagles on Sunday was a statement. The Eagles aren’t a bad football team, just disappointing this season. They looked like a bad football team Sunday, because the Saints overwhelmed them. The Saints piled up 546 yards and held the Eagles to 196.

Not that New Orleans needed another weapon, but rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith had his best game with 10 catches for 157 yards. Five different Saints scored. Guys like Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr and Dan Arnold – who aren’t on anyone’s fantasy teams, let’s say – made nice catches from Drew Brees, who can turn anyone into a star.

The Saints are rolling, and if the Rams lose to the Chiefs on Sunday night, the Saints will be a really good bet for the NFC’s No. 1 seed. It’s hard to see anyone beating them at the Superdome, or anywhere else for that matter.

Marty Mornhinweg: Many coaches fall in a trap of sticking to their system, regardless of personnel. The best coaches figure out what their players do well and adapt their system to that.

Give Mornhinweg credit for what we saw on Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, who has been under a lot of scrutiny for more than a year, put together a game plan that brought out the best in Lamar Jackson. Jackson at this point is a great runner who is developing as a passer. So the Ravens ran the ball. That sounds simple, but how many coaches would stick to that?

Jackson had 27 rushing attempts and 117 yards. That’s the most attempts for a quarterback in the Super Bowl era according to ESPN Stats and Info, far surpassing the old record of 22 by Tim Tebow. As a team the Ravens ran 54 times for 265 yards. Their first drive was 11 runs, no passes. Is that ideal in the modern NFL? Probably not. But it’s what worked. The Ravens got a 24-21 win, which gets them back in the AFC playoff picture at 5-5.

The Ravens looked like a college offense at times on Sunday, and it was a total departure from the offense Joe Flacco runs. Give Mornhinweg and the Ravens credit for a simple concept: Put your players in the best position to succeed.

Andrew Luck’s comeback player of the year campaign: Luck winning comeback player of the year is probably a lock at this point. What a story he’s authoring.

Before the season, we didn’t know if Luck would ever be the same. He missed all last season after labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder. He’s back and as good as ever. In a result that kept the Colts alive in the AFC South race, they blasted the Tennessee Titans 38-10. Luck had 297 yards, three touchdowns and a 143.8 passer rating. Luck has thrown at least three touchdowns in seven straight games, tied for the third longest streak in NFL history. He would have put up even better numbers had the Titans not been so terrible. Luck was pulled early in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.

The Colts are 5-5. They’re still two games behind the Houston Texans in the AFC South. But they’re in the wild-card race, and it’s still possible for them to press the Texans for the division title. Luck’s comeback story could get even better.

Jon Gruden and Derek Carr: It’s hard to imagine the pressure the coach and quarterback of a failing NFL team are under. When cameras caught Gruden and Carr yelling at each other a couple times Sunday, that shouldn’t be too surprising (Gruden said later, according to NFL.com, “That’s part of this business. We’re going to have times where we clash a little bit. We’re also very supportive of one another.”)

It had to feel pretty good when their day ended in smiles and hugs.

The Raiders somehow pulled off a win at Arizona. After a late 57-yard touchdown by David Johnson was taken off the board due to a holding penalty, the Raiders got the ball back with 1:53 left at their own 20, trailing 21-20. Oakland’s offense had done practically nothing. Tensions between Carr and Gruden were high. And then the Raiders marched for the win. Marcell Ateman had a 32-yard gain on a nice pass by Carr. Carr hit Seth Roberts for 20 yards on third-and-10. That set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.

The win might ultimately sting a bit if the Cardinals draft before the Raiders next April. And it’s not like the Raiders’ season is saved. But in the middle of a horrendous season, the flight home from Arizona after a win had to be a good one.

LOSERS

The Chargers and yet another weird loss: The Chargers put up 479 yards, held the Broncos under 250 yards through the first 58 minutes and still lost. That’s hard to do, but it’s just another weird loss for the Chargers.

The Chargers found a few ways to lose Sunday. They missed an extra point in a 23-22 loss to the Broncos, and kicking woes just seem to be in their DNA. Inside of the two-minute warning and with the Broncos out of timeouts, Philip Rivers threw incomplete on a screen pass that was well covered, a mistake that gave the Broncos an extra 40 seconds. Denver won on a field goal on the final play.

These are just the types of games the Chargers lose. They were on a nice roll, keeping pace with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, but they can’t seem to shake the weird losses that have plagued them for years.

Doug Marrone and the conservative Jaguars: You’d think the Jaguars would have learned their lesson.

Last season, the Jaguars had a lead in the AFC championship game, went into a shell and blew a lead against the Patriots. The stakes weren’t as high Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the result looked familiar.

The Jaguars did nothing after taking a 16-0 lead to win the game. Marrone and his staff went into a shell and just hoped the game would end. Blake Bortles dropped back to throw four times with the lead in the fourth quarter, and three of those passes came on third and long. Instead of trying to win the game on third-and-5 after the Steelers had cut a 16-0 deficit to 16-13, the Jaguars ran the ball up the middle for a yard, practically choosing to punt. They did, and the Steelers drove for a game-winning touchdown with five seconds left. The one chance the Jaguars had to salvage something out of a terrible season passed with them sitting on their hands.

It was symbolic of the Jaguars’ season. They’ve been maybe the biggest disappointment in the NFL. When they finally had a chance to finish something good this season, they ran up the middle and punted.

Anyone who thought we were past the Buccaneers’ QB carousel: The Buccaneers went into the offseason with Jameis Winston as their starter, then went to Ryan Fitzpatrick when Winston was suspended, Winston got the job back after Fitzpatrick struggled against the Bears, Fitzpatrick got the job back after Winston struggled against the Bengals, and on Sunday Fitzpatrick was benched for Winston when he played poorly against the Giants.

Got all that?

We’re in for another week of asking who the Buccaneers’ quarterback will be. It seems like it’ll be Winston again. He came in after Fitzpatrick was absolutely awful against the Giants. Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions. Winston had 199 yards and a pair of touchdowns in relief. The Bucs might as well give Winston another shot, and perhaps he can build his long-term future with the Bucs down the stretch.

Or, it will just set up another quarterback change before the season is done.

The Carolina Panthers’ costly two-point conversion miss: Ron Rivera’s decision to go for two was flawed, Cam Newton’s execution wasn’t good, and the Panthers might regret it the rest of the season.

The Panthers started 6-2 but have now lost two in a row. They’re all but out of the NFC South race with the Saints moving to 9-1, and they’ll be in a battle for a wild-card spot. The Panthers had a chance to win Sunday, but Rivera probably got aggressive at the wrong time.

The Panthers are better than the Lions. They weren’t being outplayed. The Panthers out-gained the Lions 387-309 and averaged 6.8 yards per play to 4.8 for Detroit. Yet, when the Panthers scored late they acted like the underdog, going for the two-point conversion and the win instead of playing for overtime. Kicker Graham Gano didn’t have a good day, and that might have affected Rivera’s decision.

“I think you go for two on the road to win the game,” Rivera said, according to the Charlotte Observer. “That’s what I did at the end of the day. What’s to say the coin toss (to begin overtime) is going to go in our favor (or) we’re going to stop ‘em? So why not go for two?”

On the play, Newton had a lot of time but his receivers were well-covered. When Jarius Wright flashed open, Newton hurried a throw that went too high.

“I gotta make that play,” Newton said, according to the Observer. “That’s what it comes down to. Jarius did a good job kind of improvising and I’ve just got to make that play.”

Rivera’s decision wasn’t indefensible, though it seemed like he would have been better kicking the extra point. Newton missed a bang-bang throw, but that happens. That’s the tight-rope life of the NFL, and the loss for the Panthers on Sunday could prove costly.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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