Next Stop: The Playoffs

Barry Switzer once said, "Coaches coach and players play." For the all talk about scheme and the job coach Bill Parcells has done, the Cowboys have proven to be a vastly improved team over last year's 6-10 bunch because they have better players.

The first step, according to owner Jerry Jones, was when the Cowboys were able to sign free agent quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The Cowboys had not had championship-caliber quarterback play since Troy Aikman retired following the 2000 season.

Jones believed Bledsoe had that kind of ability and he said it motivated him to open his wallet to put a winner on the field in 2005.

What followed was the biggest free agent haul in team history: Cornerback Anthony Henry, nose tackle Jason Ferguson, guard Marco Rivera, cornerback Aaron Glenn, running back Anthony Thomas (who has since been cut) and receiver Peerless Price. Add in a talent-laden rookie class, headed by first round picks DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears, and the Cowboys were suddenly rich with playmakers. The Cowboys count numerous first-round picks among their major contributors, including Bledsoe, Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn on offense and Greg Ellis, Ware, Spears, Aaron Glenn, Terence Newman and Roy Williams on defense.

But for the Cowboys to finish what they started, they must have a strong second half.

And it won't be an easy task.

All of the Cowboys remaining opponents -- save for the Lions -- have winning records. All, including the Lions because of the sorry NFC North, have playoff aspirations. In addition to playing three NFC East road games, the Cowboys play at the Carolina Panthers. How they do on the road will go a long way in determining how the Cowboys finish. But the biggest factor will be negotiating a tough stretch that includes three games in 11 days -- at Philadelphia Nov. 14, at home against Detroit Nov. 20 and Denver Nov. 24. Get through that with a 2-1 record or better, and the Cowboys will be sitting pretty. They will have 10 days following the Broncos game to prepare for the next opponent, re-focus and heal up for the final stretch.

--Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks. After being a 4-3 team since the days of Tom Landry, the Cowboys shifted their primary base defense to the 3-4 front in 2005. It's a scheme coach Bill Parcells has had the most success with in his career and it's one he prefers. The move is already paying huge dividends, despite still being new to so many players and coaches. After not being able to get off the field on third down last year or keep teams out of the end zone, the Cowboys have the fifth best defense in the league. They are sixth in sacks per play, sixth in third down efficiency and sixth in scoring. They have 24 sacks and 16 turnovers in eight games after recording 33 and 22 in 16 last season. Owner Jerry Jones didn't think they would be this good this fast on defense.

"I was concerned that we were going against people learning a new defense," Jones said. "Our success has a lot to do with the way (nose tackle) Jason Ferguson has played in the middle. And I can't say enough about (defensive end) Greg Ellis and (nose tackle) La'Roi Glover. For guys that were supposed to be limited because of the 3-4, they are playing outstanding."

--Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is not ready to call the Cowboys a playoff team.

But he does like this team. He says they have heart and they will respond. Of course, they have been tested with six of their first eight games decided by a touchdown or less.

Last year's team didn't respond in tough situations. Parcells has been working on their mental toughness since mini-camps and so far, it's paying off.

"I've learned that I really don't think we're going to die easily," Parcells said. "I think they will compete. So far they've done that every game out. That can serve you well as you go. When you get used to doing it, it becomes a habit. That can be a very good habit. That doesn't mean you can play letter perfect. That doesn't mean you aren't going to get beat. What it does mean is that when it's time to play, they are going to try to play."

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