Five things Cowboys must do to outlast Eagles, win NFC East this season

If the playoffs started today, the Dallas Cowboys would make the cut. The Cowboys returned to North Texas on Sunday night in sole possession of first place of the NFC East after a 35-27 win in Detroit improved Dallas to 6-4. The Philadelphia Eagles fell to 5-5 with a 17-10 loss to the New England Patriots.

What must Dallas do to maintain its division lead? Here are five keys to the Cowboys winning the NFC East:.

1. Keep riding Dak Prescott: As recently as last week, the Cowboys were continuing to insist: We’re a run-first team. Ezekiel Elliott is the best running back in the league. When in doubt, go to Zeke. Until Elliott reproves that, none of those three assumptions should drive Dallas’ game plan.

Whether Elliott is struggling more with his balance than in the past or the offensive line is creating fewer run lanes, the Cowboys are not — and should not be — a run-first team right now. Elliott hasn’t averaged 3 yards per carry in either of the last two games. Prescott compiled 841 yards and six touchdowns in those two contests. He’s averaging 322.1 yards by air per contest this season, four times leading two receivers over 100 yards in a game. The Cowboys’ running backs still play an important role in Dallas’ offense. But Tony Pollard’s best play in Detroit was his 21-yard catch-and-run score. Elliott’s best play also was a receiving touchdown. Even his touchdown celebration acknowledged that this offense right now runs through Prescott.

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2. Tackle more consistently: On one second-quarter drive in Detroit, the Cowboys’ defense flashed play-making skills reminiscent of the stingy unit it was in 2018. Robert Quinn burst off the right edge for a sack of 7 yards. The next play, Jaylon Smith stopped a runner up the middle in his tracks. On the third: Leighton Vander Esch broke up a pass intended for tight end T.J. Hockenson. But the Cowboys have showed that sharp tackling, pass rush and ability to stop the run far too infrequently.

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Dallas allowed Lions backup quarterback Jeff Driskel to scramble for 51 yards. They also allowed him to average 8.03 yards per pass attempt, a mark only six quarterbacks in the league bested through 10 weeks. A week earlier, Dallas whiffed so many times the Vikings went for 144 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Info. If the Cowboys don’t shore up their coverage, players like Tom Brady, Todd Gurley and Carson Wentz will soon make them pay.

3. More turnovers: The Cowboys’ offense entered Week 11 averaging the second-most yards per drive in the league. They need to, with their starting field position ranking among the league’s worst seven through 10 weeks. One major contributing factor: how few takeaways Dallas’ defense gets. Only Detroit secures interceptions at a rate lower than Dallas’ 1.15% of opponents’ throws. Sixteen teams take away the ball more often than the Cowboys.

The offense has responded when the defense lets up touchdown after touchdown. But that will be more challenging next week: New England and Buffalo rank in the top three in total defense and passing defense. If Dallas’ defense can finds its groove against those opponents, it will be well-positioned to swipe the Bears and Rams, too.

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4. Start faster: Their first-quarter woes are a well-established story line 11 weeks in. But the Cowboys have not solved their slow starts on either side of the ball. They have scored a first-quarter touchdown in just one of their last seven games and rank 28th in first-quarter scoring defense. Every player and coach at the Star is well aware of the problem. That didn’t stop Elliott from fumbling the second snap in Detroit, or Bo Scarbrough from scoring first in Detroit, despite the Lions activating the running back just a day earlier. Against teams like the Packers, Vikings and even the Jets, the Cowboys got too little going too late.

5. Win 10 games, including at Philadelphia: When Elliott said last week that he wasn’t surprised the Cowboys had lost four games, this was why:.

“It’s the NFL,” he explained. “You’re not going to be 12-4 every year. You’re not going to be 13-3. You’re not going to be 10-6 every year. But what matters is you give yourself a chance every year in the playoffs.”.

Of course, if the Cowboys go 12-4, they’re a lock for the division title. It’s possible they stay on top with as few as nine wins. But Philadelphia still has four games against teams with fewer than four victories, so Dallas can’t afford many more slip-ups. Ten wins with a Philadelphia sweep will guarantee the Cowboys a playoff berth. That could mean needing at least one upset. Through 11 weeks, the Cowboys’ record is better than that of three of their last six opponents. Yet Dallas has not beaten a team that’s better than .500 through 11 weeks. New England and Buffalo will give them two chances to get over that hump before November ends.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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