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Opponent focus: ESPN NFL Nation Cowboys reporter Todd Archer

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) prepares to throw against the Houston Texans during an NFL Football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2022 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

ESPN NFL Nation Cowboys Reporter Todd Archer on the Cowboys as they prepare to play the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field Sunday.

Question: The Cowboys are 10-3 with four consecutive victories. They rallied late to beat the Houston Texans, 27-23, Sunday. What's the state of the Cowboys entering Sunday's game?

Answer: If you asked before the Texans game, it might be a different answer. If you asked after the Texans game it might be, "Uh, 10-3 … but geez, you can't play that way." They needed a 98-yard drive to beat the worst team in football. Maybe the Cowboys are looking at it and saying, "Now it's time to get our heads on straight. We know we can't do this." That could be the good part that comes out of the Texans deal. But they have won four in a row. It's the first time they have back-to-back seasons of at least 10 victories since 1995-1996. It looks like they're going to at least be a playoff team in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-2007. The arrow is still up, but it might not feel as up as it was after how they played against Houston.

Q: This feels like a team that can do more in the postseason than any Cowboys team in a while. Does it feel that way to you?

A: I can't go there because I've seen Cowboys teams that I think have been better than this team fail in the playoffs. The 2007 team, probably the most talented team they have had since their 1990s Super Bowl teams, had a home-field advantage and lost in the NFC Divisional Playoff to the New York Giants. The 2016 team had a home-field advantage and lost in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers. What's different this year is maybe the rest of the NFC isn't as strong. There's no question this team can make a run to a Super Bowl or an NFC Championship Game, but it's all going to come down to matchups. If the season ended right now, they would play Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs. The Cowboys never have beaten [Buccaneers quarterback] Tom Brady. Welcome to the playoffs. Now do something you've never done before.

Q: That's where the franchise is, right? That people won't believe it until they see it?

A: I think Cowboys fans want to believe, but there's a segment of them that are scarred. It has been since 1995 [since the Cowboys have won a Super Bowl]. They're like, "Prove it to me." This is a team that lives on the high wire every week on national narratives and perspectives. You score 33 points in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts (in a 54-19 Week 13 victory) and it's, "No one can beat the Cowboys." You struggle against Houston and it's, "They can't even win a playoff game and they're overrated." That's the fluctuation outside the building with the Cowboys. Either they're the greatest thing since sliced bread or the most overrated team in the NFL. They're probably somewhere in between just like everybody else. There's no doubt in my mind they can beat Philadelphia and San Francisco. But until you see them do it, it's hard to have faith they're going to do it.

Q: When the Cowboys are good offensively, what are they?

A: They're a run-first, pound-you team with [running backs] Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. They use the play-action to make some big plays. This is a team that has to be built on its run game. When they rely on the run, they're difficult to beat. They've run it pretty much against everybody, although against the Texans – like everything – it was a little bit of a struggle. Pollard is a big-play guy. Zeke has a touchdown run in six straight games. Those two guys complement each other very well. If they're going to win, they have to run successfully.

Q: This appears to be a reliable, top-level defense.

A: The Texans game was the first time in 24 or 25 games they hadn't had a sack. That was pretty alarming – that they couldn't get to [Texans quarterbacks] Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel. But the strength of this team early on was the defense. They were winning games with their defense, especially when quarterback Dak Prescott was out with a thumb injury [from Weeks 2-6]. [Linebacker] Micah Parsons is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. [Cornerback] Trevon Diggs is playing at Pro Bowl level. [Defensive end] Demarcus Lawrence is playing at a Pro Bowl level. There are probably nine other guys on this defense who have made big-time plays and contributed greatly. They're also hitting injuries a little bit. The secondary is starting to look a little different. It's going to be how these other guys that haven't played very much step up and handle the pressure of a late-season run. [Defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn deserves major credit for what this defense has been able to do these last two years in becoming one of the NFL's best.

Q: When this team gets tripped up, what trips them up?

A: Themselves. Too many penalties. A lot of self-inflicted wounds with penalties and turnovers. Prescott has nine interceptions in eight starts. That's the first time he ever has been underwater in that statistic in his career. He has two other seasons where he hasn't thrown that many interceptions. He needs to play better and find a balance between aggressive and reckless. I don't know how you find that during the course of a season midstream. He can't be a game manager, but he has to understand time and score – and when is the right time to take some chances. Most of the time when they lose, it really has been them putting themselves in bad situations.

Q: The goal for this team obviously is the Super Bowl. Is this a team that can do that?

A: They can win the Super Bowl, but you have not seen this team do it. This is not a team with a championship pedigree. Philadelphia can rely on some players who won a Super Bowl a few years ago [following the 2017 season]. San Francisco can rely on players who got to a Super Bowl and won an NFC Championship Game [following the 2019 season]. The Cowboys don't really have anybody like that in their core players. Their biggest hope is Head Coach Mike McCarthy – who won a Super Bowl and made four NFC title games with Green Bay – kind of showing them the way a little bit. They thought they were that team last season and lost in the first round of the playoffs to San Francisco at home. Yes, they can beat any team. They're not going to fearful of any team they play in the playoffs in the NFC or AFC. But guess what? No team is going to be fearful of playing the Cowboys.

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