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No more moral victories: Time for Cowboys to win a tough road game, prove their playoff potential

The Cowboys could start this season 0-2 with a loss to the Chargers and still win the NFC East. That doesn’t make Sunday’s game any less important.

From the results of the NFC East’s first week, we learned that Dak is back, as is the Jalen Hurts of Tuscaloosa/Norman days, and that foul-smelling liquid leaking on Washington fans at FedEx Field was just stagnant rainwater. Let’s hope so. The NFL has made its contempt of the paying customers crystal clear. We didn’t need a demonstration.

The Cowboys certainly didn’t stink up Raymond James Stadium in losing to Tampa Bay. Dak Prescott looked weeks ahead of schedule, and Dan Quinn’s defense at least forced Tom Brady to act like Tom Brady. No, there’s no such thing in the NFL as a moral victory, but you might be excused for calling it a feel-good loss.

Just the same, the Cowboys should understand something about Sunday’s game against the Chargers:

Don’t come back from Los Angeles expecting a participation trophy.

Time to win a tough game on the road instead of coming close. Prove you can go places this postseason.

Make us believe this year might actually be different.

No, it’s not a must-win game for the Cowboys. Not when they play in the East, which came this close to making Oklahoma’s nonconference schedule. CBS’ fall lineup looks stiffer.

Washington is already down to the back-up to the guy who’s quarterbacked nine teams and never led any of them to the playoffs. Hurts looked Heisman-like Sunday for the Eagles, but let’s not forget who that was against. Atlanta currently ranks 27th in ESPN’s power rankings. The Giants, apparently oblivious to Jason Garrett’s presence, slink one step behind the Falcons.

The Cowboys could start this season 0-2 and still win the East. The addition of a 17th game waters down the schedule enough to facilitate a course correction.

As for how tough the going will get, do you know how many playoff teams from last year are on the Cowboys’ schedule?

Kansas City, New Orleans and Washington, which ought to get an asterisk.

Frankly, I’ve got the Cowboys going 10-7, and that should be the floor.

No matter how much they win in the regular season, though, only the playoffs should matter around here. The last time they got there, in 2018, they beat Seattle in the wild card at home after a 10-6 season. They were impressive enough in a 24-22 win over the Seahawks to make us think they had a decent shot against the Rams in the Coliseum.

But the Cowboys’ 30-22 loss, which wasn’t nearly as close as it sounds now, was proof that the Cowboys’ season was mostly a mirage, as a closer inspection should have told us.

The Cowboys went 3-5 on the road in ‘18. Two of those wins were against teams (the Falcons and Giants) that would finish with losing records. The other was against the 9-7 Eagles. If you want to know a team’s pedigree, check its road results.

Consider what the Chargers did last week in Landover, Md., where the players weren’t the only ones who needed a shower when it was over. Justin Herbert, coming off his coronation as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, passed for 337 yards against a defense billed as one of the league’s best. The Chargers weren’t explosive, but they were efficient, converting on 14 of 19 third downs. Rashawn Slater, the rookie offensive tackle from Northwestern, shut out Chase Young, one of the league’s dominant pass rushers.

How did it feel, Justin?

“It always feels great to walk away with a win,” he said. “Especially on the road, and that’s what good teams have to do.”

Yes, Justin, it is.

Time for the Cowboys to do the same. As is their custom, they didn’t make it any easier on themselves. Not 24 hours after the Tampa Bay results were in, we learned La’el Collins, who’s pretty much all-world when available, will miss the next five games because of a substance abuse suspension. He’s reportedly made himself available for tests at the same rate he’s made games.

The Cowboys could have kicked Zack Martin out to right tackle in Collins’ place, as they did last year, and gone with Connor McGovern at right guard, as they did last week. Playing your five best available linemen seems like a good plan. The Cowboys used to put Larry Allen wherever needed. Larry could have plugged a leak in a levee, for that matter. Martin isn’t as dominant as Allen was, but he’s just as versatile. Yet Jerry Jones tells us Terence Steele will start against Joey Bosa. Jerry says don’t worry, they’ll help him. Let’s hope it’s not the same plan they had for poor Chaz Green when he made Adrian Clayborn’s career in a single day in Atlanta.

Come to think of it, Anthony Brown could use a little help Sunday at corner, too. The same kind they gave Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein by signing another kicker.

Otherwise, if the Cowboys play Sunday like they did last week against the Bucs, they should be in good shape. It just needs to end up a ‘W’ this time. We’ve reached our limit on feel-good losses.

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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