FRISCO — Not every team finds itself on equal footing when the NFL calendar turns to December.
Some have no shot, others are desperate and a smattering are simply trying to hang on. Teams with the best records often focus more on maintaining position or managing health.
The Cowboys don’t fall into any of these categories. The team owns the longest active winning streak in the conference at four games. Reason for optimism doesn’t stop there.
This team is in good health, and the few key players who are hurt are about to return. While other teams are beaten up — please see Sunday afternoon’s opponent, Philadelphia — Dallas is playing its best ball of the season and should only get better.
“Not only in the NFL, I’ve been on a lot of good teams, and they all gel at different times,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “So if you’re gelling at the right time as you’re moving forward and the season is coming to an end, we’re getting some players back, we’re getting some people we can benefit from and help us, and we’re doing it at a time that we’re playing good.
“It’s just important for us to continue this momentum and carry it forward in this last stretch.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, who has missed the last two games with a stinger, has returned to practice on a limited basis and should play against the Eagles. Pro Bowl linebacker Sean Lee didn’t practice Wednesday but should return this week or next.
Any debate about whether the Cowboys are better off with Lee or rookie Leighton Vander Esch as the starter should be tabled. But all can agree the defense is better with both players.
“Man, the sky is the limit,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “With me being the leader of the defense, I’ve got to make sure everybody is right. So we are looking forward to getting even more talented guys back to dominate.”
Other players who have been dealing with injuries, such as Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin, are much closer to full health. Receiver Cole Beasley, who hurt his foot in the win over New Orleans to put his availability against Philadelphia into doubt, practiced Wednesday on a limited basis and declared he’ll play.
Receiver Tavon Austin hasn’t played in nearly two months since he suffered a sports hernia injury against Jacksonville. But he’s getting close.
Add his speed to a receiving corps that now features Amari Cooper and an emerging Michael Gallup, and an improving offense has even more room for enhancement.
The Cowboys are not Washington, which seems to lose a starting quarterback every time it takes the field, or Philadelphia, a group that struggles to find enough upright defenders in the secondary to get through a game.
Performance is the baseline for the Cowboys’ burgeoning confidence. But the ceiling for that confidence is even higher given the players on the verge of a return.
“We’re playing good ball right now, but we’ll continue to talk about it,” Prescott said. “We’re still leaving plays out there. I’m sure the defense, there’s a lot of things they want to clean up from that [Saints] game. I’m sure the one touchdown that they did give up, they have a lot of things that they can go back and say ‘We should’ve done this or could’ve done this better.’
“And I know on offense we’ve continued to leave plays out there. I’ve missed a receiver here and there. We’ll continue to get those things cleaned up and continue to get better, but we’ve got a good team.”
Smith points to this group’s resilience and how “we’re connected as one.” A stumbling block from past seasons also has been removed.
Remember when the narrative at this time of year was how the Cowboys would continually fade in December? That began to turn in 2014.
If you ignore what took place in December 2015, a year in which the Cowboys started four quarterbacks, the franchise is 10-2 in the final full month of the regular season since 2014. Throw 2015 into the mix, and the Cowboys are still 11-5 in their last four Decembers.
All of this has led owner Jerry Jones to adopt an attitude of, “Maybe us. Why not?”
The answers to that question are slowly diminishing.
“I don’t know if this team is necessarily the ‘Why not us,’ but we know what we’re capable of,” Prescott said. “We’re not worried about what other teams are doing or what’s different about our team than other teams. We’re simply worried about how we get better, how we get better in each and every aspect of this game within each and every unit.
“We’ve just got the right guys to do that, and if we continue to have that mind-set and mentality, we give ourselves a really good chance.”
Catch David Moore and co-host Robert Wilonsky on Intentional Grounding on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7-FM) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. through the Super Bowl.