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Cowboys suddenly have reason for hope in December

The most prevailing question asked by many fans as Week 15 came to a close has to be: Why didn't my team play like this all season?

Fans of the Cowboys, Panthers, Raiders, Buccaneers, Ravens, and even the Browns have to be wondering: Why did it take to Week 15 for my team to finally look like a good team? This past weekend, those teams not only performed well, they saved their best effort for a late-season game, thus giving their fans hope entering the offseason.

Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh would always remind his coaches, "If we have seen a player do it once, we know we can get him to do it again." The same theory applies to teams. If the Panthers can beat the Vikings, why can't they beat the Bills? If the Cowboys can hand the Saints their first loss of the season, why can't they be a legitimate Super Bowl team? If the Raiders can beat the Broncos in Denver with Charlie Frye at quarterback for much of the game, then why can't they win the AFC West next year? As Art Modell, the former owner of the Browns and Ravens, would always tell me, "Kid, in the NFL, we sell hope."

Playoff picture

How big was the Cowboys' victory against the Saints on Saturday night? Examine the ramifications of the win by checking out the latest "If the season ended today ..." **More ...**

No team has more hope for the immediate future then the Cowboys. They proved they can dominate the game, especially when they pay attention to details and focus. Whether they used former Colts coach Tony Dungy's prediction comments as motivation is not relevant, rather they finally played a near-perfect game at the most perfect time. On Saturday night, the Cowboys used their size and speed to take over the game from the start. The result proved that the Saints are not invincible and the Cowboys can be a factor in the coming weeks, as long as they do not get comfortable with their modest success.

The biggest game in the league is always the next game after a win. In Week 16, the Cowboys must go into Washington and duplicate their preparation and effort in order to get another impressive victory. If they fail to come back with a win next week, then all the hope they gained from their impressive trip to New Orleans will be wasted, and the same can likely be said for their playoff chances, too.

So, why does Dallas not play as they did Saturday night all the time? The main reason lies in comfort. When you win in the NFL, there is a sense of comfort and happiness that is naturally filled with each victory. And "comfort" is a coach's worst nightmare. A coach must make sure no one -- including himself -- is ever comfortable with the win, which can easily impact preparations for the next game. Therefore, most coaches are more miserable after wins than they are after any loss; they must get their team refocused and their nasty mood helps the cause. Despite the Cowboys' big victory, coach Wade Phillips cannot feel a sense of relief or happiness, he must crack the whip and remind everyone of what Vince Lombardi often reminded his Green Bay Packers, "That the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more." There is much more to do for the Cowboys, and it all starts next Sunday.

That lack of comfort has been removed from the Saints. Now, coach Sean Payton can crack his whip and use this home loss as the best thing that has happened to the Saints this year. Falling at home will now remind the Saints that just because they are playing in New Orleans does not guarantee a win. Players get a sense of comfort at home, especially when they read in every publication how hard it is for any opponent to go into their stadium. Now Payton can turn this loss into a positive by attacking that sense of familiarity with his vast array of motivational tools. There will be no sense of comfort in New Orleans come playoff time, which might be the best Christmas gift Payton could have ever received.

Sunday's best

» Joshua Cribbs of the Browns is amazing. He has to be the only player in the league who returns kickoffs for touchdowns and then goes out to cover the ensuing kickoff, oftentimes making the tackle. Where would the Browns be without him? He might not get any MVP votes, but he is going to get a hefty raise. The best thing that has happened for Cribbs was the Browns not redoing his deal this offseason, because now it will cost them almost twice as much.

» Besides Cribbs, the Browns had another star performer Sunday. Jerome Harrison had 34 carries for 286 yards and -- between him and Cribbs -- helped carry the Browns to their first winning streak of the season.

» Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for more than 500 yards, which is more than the Raiders, 49ers, Browns and Patriots combined on Sunday. All those yards were impressive, but his last throw to Mike Wallace was the top throw of the day.

» Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson could be here every week as his consistently stellar play is worthy of being mentioned each time he puts on his uniform. This is the second consecutive week he dropped 190-plus receiving yards on an opponent.

» The Carolina Panthers deserve credit for hammering the Vikings on Sunday night and creating concern about Minnesota as a legitimate Super Bowl team. Quarterback Matt Moore looked like a Pro Bowler in only his third start of the season, as he torched the Vikings' secondary for three touchdowns.

The Sunday funnies

» The Bears can blame quarterback Jay Cutler and all his interceptions as the reason they are struggling, but the reality is they are just not good in any phase of the game and they are not even trying. Chicago is the kind of team everyone wants to play now: A sure win.

» The Cowboys cut kicker Nick Folk and added Shaun Suisham on Monday. Folk was really struggling to make kicks in games, or even in warmups. Did you see the footage from pregame warmups aired on NFL Network before Folk attempted his 24-yard field goal? He looked like a weekend golfer, shanking the ball all over the place. The Cowboys had to find a new kicker.

» The 49ers have tried to make Alex Smith the team's franchise quarterback, but based on this year he is not the answer. In fact, he might just be an adequate backup. The game moves too fast for him, especially on the road.

» On Sunday, the Jets' field-goal unit killed the team's legitimate playoff chances. They are still mathematically alive, but need a ton of help. Help is not what the kicking unit provided. They had the triple crown of mistakes, one missed, one blocked and one muffed.

» The Vikings' pass defense is suspect, but the unit is really suspect when it travels outdoors. However, what hurt the Vikings more than anything Sunday night was their inability to convert third downs on offense (they were 1 for 10). Performing poorly on pass defense and on third downs usually means a bad outcome.

On the lookout

» If I am Clark Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, I have to be wondering if there is any progress being made this season with the new regime. I realize the Chiefs are not very talented, but they are worse this year on defense than last year and have allowed more than 40 points in three of the last four weeks. I suspect changes are coming in Kansas City in every aspect of its defense, from players to coaches to scheme. Something has to change.

» Watching Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne prepare before the Titans game, I could tell he is the kind of player who loves everything about the game of football. He is going to be good and all his mistakes this year will greatly benefit the Dolphins next season. The Dolphins will be for real in 2010.

» The Buffalo Bills could be the first team that calls the Philadelphia Eagles about a trade for Michael Vick. They need a quarterback badly and if they have to rely on the draft, things might go from bad to worse in Buffalo. Vick would help the Bills as they try to rebuild their team once again.

Off the beaten track

» The Lions played their hearts out against the Cardinals, but they are just not good enough to beat many teams. They have too many players that "used to be good," and are just not good any longer. This roster will be turned over once again. This might be the last season we will see former Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper in the NFL.

» Everyone watching the Falcons-Jets game, including the coaches of the Jets, knew the ball was going to tight end Tony Gonzalez on the final play. But the formation did not allow New York to double or jam Gonzalez, and he made the game-winner.

» Many might complain about the lack of a running game from the Chargers or Eagles, but they are the two best screen teams in the league. Often, screens can accomplish as much as the running game.

Three-step dots ...

» The Ravens getting Terrell Suggs back and healthy will make a huge difference to their defense during the stretch run. ...

» The Falcons' Jason Snelling is really hard to tackle and the more he plays, the more I like him. ...

NFL Weekly Countdown

Where does the Raiders' rousing come-from-behind win over the Broncos in Denver rank among the top performances of Week 15? Go ahead, make the call and **cast your vote!**

» The Rams hold the No. 1 spot in the draft right now, but unfortunately for them there is not a top quarterback to select at that spot right now. If this current order holds true, the Rams would have picked in the top two spots for three years in a row. ...

» If New England ever gets running back Fred Taylor back and healthy, he can make a huge difference in its running game. Laurence Maroney is just not explosive enough to make the big plays. ...

» The Bengals might have lost the game in San Diego, but for their sake let's hope they found a passing game to compliment their offense. The game against the Chargers was their best passing effort of the year. ...

» The NFL RedZone channel is the greatest invention ever. It never missed a play from the final minutes of the finishes of the Chargers-Bengals and Raiders-Broncos games. ...

» Packers tight end Jermichael Finley is one of the best-looking tight ends in the league. He will be going to many Pro Bowls in the near future. ...

» The Steelers are not the same team on defense, even if Troy Polamalu was back in action. They are no longer fast and explosive on any level, and if their pass rush is not able to dominate they cannot slow down any passing game. ...

» The Raiders' JaMarcus Russell needs to build on the come-from-behind victory against the Broncos. He can win back his teammates if he does. ...

» Denver gave up a first-round pick in the 2010 draft for the right to draft Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest in the second round. However, Smith is struggling to cover anyone and that pick looks very disappointing right now, especially when he cannot cover any of the big receivers of the Raiders. ...

» My deepest condolences go out to the family of Chris Henry and everyone in the Bengals organization.

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