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Why 2-7 Cowboys still believe in 2020 chances, beginning this week vs. Vikings: 'Don't ever get this twisted'

Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence says he feels “like we deserve to still be in this thing and we can make a pretty good run.” [AP Photo/Ron Jenkins]
Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence says he feels “like we deserve to still be in this thing and we can make a pretty good run.” [AP Photo/Ron Jenkins]

FRISCO, Texas — DeMarcus Lawrence boarded this train two weeks ago.

“Nobody in this league is elite,” the Dallas Cowboys defensive end concluded Nov. 8 after the Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a 24-19 win. Undefeated Pittsburgh was trailing Dallas until 2 minutes, 14 seconds remained on the JerryWorld Jumbotron clock.

If this hype train geared up for departure before the Cowboys’ bye week, consider it rolling full steam ahead as the 2-7 Cowboys game plan this week’s visit to 4-5 Minnesota.

“First things first,” Lawrence said Wednesday after practice at The Star. “Don’t ever get this twisted: We’re a good team. It’s all about winning games at the end of the day, but we’re a good team.

“I feel like we deserve to still be in this thing and we can make a pretty good run.”

By most objective measures, the Cowboys are not a good football team. They’ve won 22 percent of contests, the last of which came Oct. 11, when quarterback Dak Prescott awaited emergency ankle surgery at a local hospital as kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a 34-yard field goal against the New York Giants as time expired. The Cowboys have turned the ball over 20 times, exceeding both their 2019 giveaway total and 30 NFL teams’ marks this year. And the Cowboys have ceded 32.2 points per game, the worst in the NFL.

And yet, coaches and players are not shying away from the reality that a disastrous NFC East may remain up for grabs. Head coach Mike McCarthy said he might have shied away from using that as motivation earlier in his career, but not now.

“The bulk of our focus and the majority of the messaging is really on self-improvement,” McCarthy said Monday. “But yeah, I think it’s only obvious what the four records are in the division and winning the division and what’s in front of you.

“It’s obvious the state of our division.”

The NFC East pecking order begins with 3-5-1 Philadelphia. The Eagles’ three wins came against opponents — Dallas, Washington and San Francisco — who boast a combined 9-20 record. Their next five opponents — Cleveland, Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona — have each won at least six of nine.

The 3-7 New York Giants and 2-7 Washington Football Team follow next. The Giants await four 6-3 teams: Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland and Baltimore. Washington’s schedule is more manageable, though the 9-0 Steelers and 6-3 Seahawks still threaten.

Then there’s the Cowboys’ docket. Only Baltimore has won more than it’s lost, Dallas’ combined opponents faring 24-39-2 compared to upcoming Eagles opponents at 36-27. The Cowboys will face each hapless NFC East team again, twice at home. This week’s trip to Minnesota poses the biggest threat left aside from a Thursday night contest at Baltimore.

An upset at Minnesota — which would constitute McCarthy’s first road victory as Cowboys coach — could set the tone.

“It is kind of crazy to be 2-7 and still have a chance,” running back Ezekiel Elliott admitted Wednesday. But “everything is ahead of us.”

After letting up more than 200 rushing yards in three of four games, the Cowboys limited Philadelphia to 119 on Nov. 1 then Pittsburgh to 46. They’ve shuffled defensive tackles and regained two injured linebackers, helping improve poor run fits in what too often looked like individuals playing defense rather than a team effort. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan believes his unit has at last adjusted to a new scheme, allowing defenders to play more instinctively. Energy and effort have improved in recent weeks. Football IQ, too.

The combination is one that doesn’t lift the Cowboys beyond their rightful underdog status but does breed confidence among a team anxious to break its losing streak.

“I don’t think we really need much motivation,” Elliott said. “We’re competitors. No one likes to go out there and lose football games. I think it’s been what, a month since we won a football game? It sucks. It sucks.

“We’re hungry and we’re going to go figure out how to win.”