We revel every NFL season in the turnaround team phenomena because we love the surprise factor, the rags-to-riches storyline and watching the meek inherit the earth. But just as fascinating, at least in a train wreck sort of way, are those teams that seemingly turn it around, only to turn back into their self-destructive selves when it matters most.
Which brings us to Dallas and Detroit in what was a devastating Week 15 for the pair of former NFC division leaders. In dramatic fashion, nobody managed to squander more than what the Cowboys and Lions did in a span of about 28 excruciating hours over Sunday and Monday, dropping a pair of climate-controlled home games that left them facing the very real possibility of being left out in the cold when the postseason begins.
The perfectly mediocre Cowboys and Lions (both 7-7) were gifted this season with golden opportunities to run away with weak divisions plagued by quarterback issues. But they have repeatedly declined the generosity of others and now find themselves having exhausted their margin of error entering the final two weeks of the playoff race.
The Cowboys have to win out to win the NFC East, or they're out and facing their fourth consecutive non-playoff season. That despite being 4-0 in the division and having the starting quarterbacks of their three NFC East rivals -- Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning and Michael Vick -- struggle mightily with ineffectiveness or injury in 2013.
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The Lions have to win out and get some help, with both NFC North-leading Chicago (8-6) and second-place Green Bay (7-6-1) losing at least once. Otherwise, they're done, having wasted a 6-3 start and the perfect storm of QB injuries that hit the Packers, Bears and Vikings this season. Detroit, with a win in Week 17 at Minnesota, can go 5-1 in the NFC North and still finish third in the division. Wrap your heads around that one, Lions fans.
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If Dallas and Detroit can't win with the hands they were dealt in their divisions this year, what will it take for them to return to the playoffs, short of the NFL going to a 16-team postseason field?
Just two weeks ago, the world looked considerably different for Dallas and Detroit. Despite the challenges they incurred in the first three months of the regular season, both clubs were 7-5, in first place in their divisions and holding down the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the potential NFC playoff field. The Cowboys and Lions were coming off big Thanksgiving Day wins at home, with the benefit of those mini-byes of 10 days between games as the season's final month dawned.
Their roads to the playoffs looked fairly well-paved and inviting. Detroit was gunning for its first division title in 20 years. Dallas was in line to rule the NFC East for the first time since 2009 after watching its division rivals in Philadelphia, New York and Washington claim the past three crowns. It seemed like the Cowboys' turn.
You know the rest. December hit and the Cowboys and Lions have gone down in spectacular flames. Dallas got destroyed in the cold of Chicago two Monday nights ago and then lost at home Sunday to Green Bay in mind-boggling fashion, blowing a 23-point halftime lead against the Matt Flynn-led Packers. It tied for the biggest comeback in Green Bay history and was the second-largest choke job in Dallas' 54-year franchise existence.
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The Lions had their problems in the cold as well in Week 14, losing in a snowstorm at Philadelphia, after leading 14-0 in the third quarter. The Eagles went crazy in the fourth quarter, scoring 28 points and finishing with 299 rushing yards. And then came Monday night, when Detroit held visiting Baltimore to a franchise-record six field goals and still managed to fall 18-16 as Ravens kicker Justin Tucker drove a nail through Motown's heart with a game-winning 61-yard blast with 38 seconds remaining. Baltimore was just the second team this season to win a game without scoring a touchdown, matching the Giants' 15-7 win at Philadelphia in Week 8.
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At the moment, Detroit sits far out of the money as the No. 9 seed in the NFC field, and Dallas is 10th, two teams joined by their aversion to success, near-fatal lack of discipline and inability to avoid self-inflicted wounds. When the Cowboys desperately needed him to step up, quarterback Tony Romo instead threw two critical interceptions in forehead-slapping form in the game's final three minutes, sealing what could be the season-crushing loss to Green Bay. When the Lions were on the ropes against Baltimore, quarterback Matthew Stafford produced one of his worst games of the year, tossing three interceptions, including the game-clincher to that chatty Ravens rookie safety, Matt Elam, with 38 seconds left. It was Detroit's fifth consecutive game with at least three turnovers.
Romo and Stafford, thanks to their critical miscues, were on center stage for all the wrong reasons in Week 15, but the symmetry with the Cowboys' and Lions' four December losses and the matching desperation of their 7-7 records goes further. Both Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and his Detroit counterpart, Jim Schwartz, would seem to be in the exact same position as the season's final two weeks loom: Make the playoffs and their jobs are safe; miss them, and all bets are off, with the likelihood being that change is coming to both Dallas and Detroit.
The embattled duo of Garrett and Schwartz have certainly done each other no favors. Dallas lost to the Bears and Packers in the past two weeks, hurting Detroit, while the Lions returned the gesture to some degree, blowing that game against the Eagles -- the only team that can beat out the Cowboys in the NFC East -- and rallying from a pair of 10-point fourth-quarter deficits to stun visiting Dallas 31-30 in Week 8.
But realistically, Dallas and Detroit have no one to blame but themselves. They have taken what should have been slam-dunk playoff berths and turned them into entirely iffy propositions this month, thanks to their penchant and reputations for sloppy play, costly turnovers, questionable coaching and the inability to put games away in the fourth quarter. You hear plenty about the abundant talent level of the Cowboys and Lions rosters, but tenacity and disciplined play are consistently in glaringly short supply in Dallas and Detroit.
It's difficult to see the well-ingrained pattern of mismanagement and squandered opportunities changing for the Cowboys or Lions, even if one of them does happen to squeak into the NFC playoffs as a 9-7 division champ. As the past two weeks have served to remind us, Dallas and Detroit are consistently their own worst enemies. They don't just lose. They create masterpiece works of defeat.
There are some pretty good turnaround team stories in the NFL this season, and then there are teams that we're watching turn back into the worst version of themselves at the worst possible time. Once again, to the disbelief, disgust and disillusionment of their fans, Dallas and Detroit are finishing the season a familiar 1-2 on that particular front.
On Further Review: Week 15
The MMQB's Peter King takes a look back on the Cowboys' devastating collapse against the Green Bay Packers and says what it could mean for Dallas going forward.