With Romo back and all the pressure off, Cowboys remain very much alive

For all that ailed the Cowboys from Weeks 3 through 10, one measly win over the Dolphins has them very much within striking distance in the lackluster NFC East. 
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Of course the Cowboys didn't want to start the season 2-7. They didn't want to lose Tony Romo for two months or head into their annual Thanksgiving game looking up at the entire NFC East in the standings.

A thus far frustrating season has put the Cowboys in an interesting position, though. The pressure is off. They're now the underdog. So what else is there do to but turn it loose every week and see what happens?

“It's one of those games,” Romo said after Dallas downed Miami on Sunday, “that you've got to just stand up and fight.”

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There is something to be said for playing the favorite. That status usually (not always) has to be earned, for one. In the Cowboys' case they headed into 2015 believed to be the NFC East frontrunners because they came within a whisker of the conference title game a year ago. They also returned or upgraded on much of their key talent, enough to put Dallas in the preseason Super Bowl conversation.

The expectations changed in a hurry, as Romo suffered a shoulder injury and the Cowboys dropped seven straight games. There also was self-inflicted turmoil brought on by the front office's insistence at keeping Greg Hardy around.

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So, when Romo returned this week, he rejoined a team carrying a strict us-against-the-world mentality. That very approach could be how Dallas fuels a late run.

“I told (my teammates) that the wins and losses are what people talk about, but the way that they played was inspiring,” Romo said. “Our football team never let up.”

Maybe this doesn't do it for you. It's all very cliche, very “rah rah” in nature. The notion that one team “wants” to win more than another usually is a fallacy. Teams can struggle mentally or have a lackluster game plan, but there is too much on the line for the players themselves to wave the white flag. 

The Cowboys will not be trying any harder than the 10-0 Panthers on Thursday, nor Washington in Week 13, nor Green Bay in Week 14. 

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Still, given the right mentality, a team can generate an awful lot of juice if it feels that everyone has written it off. If the Cowboys fall short of the playoffs at this point, then big deal—they played almost half the season without their starting quarterback, plus endured injuries to other key contributors (Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, etc.). Teams don't come back from 2-7 to make the playoffs, right?

Why, then, do the Cowboys sound so darned optimistic after snapping a seven-game losing streak?

“This is the team we thought we were,” Jerry Jones said, per ESPN's Ed Werder, mere moments after his team's 24-14 victory.  

The NFC East had eight weeks to run away from the Cowboys. The division traded water instead, with a 5-3 run from the Giants qualifying as a breakthrough—they're sitting all alone in first place because of it. 

Dallas knew it would get Romo back at some point. All the Cowboys wanted to do in the interim was stay within arm's reach of first place, so that they could roll the dice once they had their QB again. Thanks to their rivals' issues, they still managed to do so, despite not winning a single game in Romo's absence.

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Hence the excitement now. For all that ailed the Cowboys from Weeks 3 through 10, one measly win has them very much within striking distance. They do not play New York again, which will make erasing a two-game division deficit more difficult, but they have an unquestioned chance. 

“I think winning, you're going to find after the games there will be a little more pep in everyone's step,” Romo said.

His team is far from a perfect one. Romo's replacements were mostly abysmal, but that 0-7 stretch is not on the fill-in QBs alone. Closing with a 7-0 or 6-1 run will be a tall task, especially with several difficult matchups ahead—starting Thursday afternoon vs. Carolina.

Yet, Dallas is still alive in the NFC East race. The expectations and the pressure are gone, having shifted to New York and Philadelphia and Washington. 

The Cowboys' only play now is to throw everything they have at the season's final six weeks, and that's exactly why they are a dangerous threat within the division.