Cow­boys’ di­vi­sional-round woes re­main

The Times-Tribune - - SPORTS - BY SCHUYLER DIXON

FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott and Ezekiel El­liott have their first play­off win and the same di­vi­sion­al­round block the Dal­las Cow­boys haven’t been able to solve for nearly 25 years.

The star quar­ter­back and run­ning back fig­ure to be lead­ing the Dal­las of­fense for years to come with new No. 1 re­ceiver Amari Cooper, ac­quired mid­sea­son for the Cow­boys’ first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Com­bined with a promis­ing young de­fense that was hum­bled in a 30-22 di­vi­sional loss to the Los An­ge­les Rams, Prescott and crew have hope they can get the Cow­boys within a win of the Su­per Bowl for the first time since the fran­chise’s fifth cham­pi­onship fol­low­ing the 1995 sea­son.

But Dal­las has been here be­fore: six di­vi­sional losses since Hall of Famers Troy Aik­man, Em­mitt Smith and Michael Irvin last led the Cow­boys to more than one win in the same post­sea­son.

Two of the losses have been with Prescott and El­liott, the other to Green Bay as the NFC’S top seed when they were rook­ies two years ago.

“We have a lot of guys that have the right makeup to make sure that we get back here, and to hope­fully get past this round,” Prescott said. “You’re go­ing to lose guys and guys are go­ing to be gone, some­times coaches. And, that’s the un­for­tu­nate part about it.

“So, right now it’s just about en­joy­ing this time, with these guys and with this team. Then it’s mov­ing for­ward, and get­ting back to this point and get­ting past this point.”

After los­ing on some last­sec­ond magic by Aaron Rodgers to end the 2016 sea­son, the Cow­boys missed the play­offs last sea­son when El­liott was sus­pended six games half­way through the sea­son on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions.

Dal­las re­cov­ered from a 3-5 start to win the NFC East with a 7-1 fin­ish, then beat Seat­tle, 24-22, in the wild-card round. The new part of the ex­pe­ri­ence was a di­vi­sional game on the road. For one of the few times this sea­son, the de­fense had the big let­down for Dal­las, al­low­ing a Dal­las play­of­frecord 273 yards rush­ing.

“We’ll treat this sea­son just like those past sea­sons,” safety Jeff Heath said in a nearly de­serted locker room Sun­day, about 16 hours after the loss to the Rams.

“It’s a tough les­son to learn last night of just how switched on you have to be in a game like that and how the mar­gin for er­ror’s so small when you’re on the road in the play­offs.”

The big­gest ques­tion on con­tracts for the core of the Dal­las of­fense is whether Prescott gets an ex­ten­sion be­fore the fi­nal year of the fourth-round pick’s four-year rookie deal.

The Cow­boys are all but cer­tain to ex­er­cise the fifthyear op­tion on El­liott, which would take him through 2020, and the Raiders had al­ready done that with Cooper for next sea­son be­fore the trade.

Cole Beasley is an un­re­stricted free agent after prov­ing to be an ef­fec­tive slot re­ceiver on the four-year con­tract he just fin­ished. Tavon Austin, ac­quired in a trade dur­ing last year’s draft, of­fers sim­i­lar skills with more speed.

With 15-year tight end Ja­son Witten’s re­tire­ment be­fore this sea­son, re-sign­ing 2015 sev­enth-round pick Ge­off Swaim could be a pri­or­ity. Swaim, how­ever, has been plagued by in­juries, in­clud­ing a bro­ken wrist that lim­ited him to nine games this sea­son.

The more sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions in free agency are with their pass rush­ers, start­ing with Demar­cus Lawrence.

A year after fin­ish­ing tied for sec­ond with 14½ sacks, Lawrence hit dou­ble dig­its again with 10½ sacks play­ing on a $17.1 mil­lion fran­chise tag. The sides weren’t close in ne­go­ti­a­tions last off­sea­son, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other fran­chise tag.

JAE C. HONG / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott leaves the field after their loss to the Los An­ge­les Rams on Satur­day.

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