FRISCO, Texas -- Margins of error are small in the NFL. A win or loss can hinge on a play here or there, early or late.
The Dallas Cowboys are on the edge of claiming their second NFC East title in three seasons because of a five-game winning streak that started Nov. 12 at Philadelphia. The Cowboys were viewed as a dead team after their 3-5 record in the first half, but they left Lincoln Financial Field with a 27-20 victory against the Eagles and have not stopped since.
In that game -- as well as the four since -- there have been key moments that swung things into the Cowboys' favor.
Nov. 11 at the Philadelphia Eagles
The situation: Cowboys lead 27-20 with two minutes remaining in the game. Philadelphia has the ball at the Dallas 30, facing third-and-2.
The play: The Cowboys are in their nickel defense -- five defensive backs -- against the Eagles' spread look. At the snap, Leighton Vander Esch's eyes do not leave running back Corey Clement. The Cowboys bring five pass-rushers with Jaylon Smith on a blitz.
As Clement shuffles to his right, Vander Esch eyes him and shuffles wide with Eagles center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks, locking their vision on the Cowboys' linebacker. As Wentz pivots to throw to Clement, Vander Esch starts to sprint toward the flat. Kelce and Brooks can't catch him and he trips up Clement for a 5-yard loss.
If Vander Esch doesn't make the play, the Eagles have a first down at the least or a big play at the most on a game-tying drive. Vander Esch's read of the situation was reminiscent of veteran linebacker Sean Lee, who has had an uncanny ability to diagnose plays quickly and slip through blockers to make tackles for loss.
On fourth-and-7, Wentz hit tight end Zach Ertz for a 6-yard gain with safety Jeff Heath making the first-down saving tackle. Without Vander Esch's stop, the Eagles would have been in a much more favorable spot to get a first down.
"I knew they were going to try something kind of nifty," Vander Esch said after the game. "They tried that screen, and I knew that was coming. I just put myself in position to make sure I was outside to turn back, if anything, and made the play."
Nov. 18, at the Atlanta Falcons
The situation: The Cowboys lead 9-6 in the third quarter but face a big third-and-1 from their 45.
The play: The Cowboys load up with 13 personnel -- one back and three tight ends. At the snap, center Joe Looney is beat, forcing Ezekiel Elliott to quickly change direction in the backfield. Former Cowboys defensive lineman Jack Crawford tracks Elliott down as the runner is lunging for the first down and pokes the ball free.
Grady Jarrett, who disrupted the play to begin with, is about to pounce on the loose ball when it is inadvertently kicked by De'Vondre Campbell. Right tackle La'el Collins jumps on the fumble, giving the Cowboys' the first-down conversion.
"That would be an incredibly significant play in my mind," coach Jason Garrett said.
Eight plays later, Dak Prescott had a touchdown run for a 12-9 lead. On the next drive, Vander Esch intercepts Matt Ryan, setting up Elliott's touchdown run that gave the Cowboys a 19-9 lead in the fourth quarter.
Nov. 22, vs. the Washington Redskins
The situation: The Cowboys trail 13-10 in the third quarter and are facing third-and-2 from the Washington 40.
At different parts of the game, the Redskins had matched up Josh Norman on Cooper, but they didn't this time, putting Quinton Dunbar on him. After the game, Cooper said the ball was not supposed to come his way based on the pre-snap look. He made a quick fake to the sideline and then sharply changed his direction to come back underneath with Beasley running wide to take the slot receiver out of the picture. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix slid far over to the sideline thinking Cooper was running a deep route and was not in position for help.
Dunbar was so flummoxed by Cooper's change of direction he fell down and Prescott hit him in stride, leading to a 40-yard touchdown pass that helped the Cowboys take the lead for good.
The Cowboys scored 21 points in the next 7:36, including a 90-yard touchdown by Cooper.
"He does it all," Prescott said. "His route-running, his creating space, his strength as we see him making him contested catches. Not only that, but breaking tackles. As you saw, his speed in the open field to run away from people. It makes him dangerous."
Nov. 29, vs. the New Orleans Saints
The situation: The Cowboys held a 10-0 lead in the second quarter but for all of the dominance the Saints appeared poised to score a touchdown with third-and-goal from the 4.
The play: The Cowboys answered the Saints' empty backfield look with their nickel personnel. Before the snap, running back Alvin Kamara goes in a speed motion to get the defense thinking about a jet sweep but doesn't get the ball.
The Cowboys are in zone and take away Drew Brees' threats to his right. He quickly flips the ball to his left to Kamara, who has only cornerback Byron Jones to beat for a touchdown. Jones does his job by forcing Kamara back inside but he can't hold on to him. He did, however, slow him down enough for Jaylon Smith to make the tackle at the Dallas 1.
Smith's closing speed was impressive. He was on the play-side hashmark when Brees threw the ball but was able to pummel Kamara after 10 fast steps to set up fourth-and-goal. Against a lot of other defenses and linebackers, that might have been a touchdown. On fourth down, DeMarcus Lawrence stops Kamara on a handoff thanks to the work of Vander Esch and Tyrone Crawford, who stand up two Saints offensive linemen.
Dec. 9, vs. the Philadelphia Eagles
The situation: In overtime, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 19. A field goal would have given the Cowboys the lead, but the Eagles would have a chance to win the game on their possession.
The play: On third-and-1, the Cowboys went with 21 personnel -- two backs, one tight end -- to try pick up a first down but Elliott was stopped for no gain to set up fourth down. Garrett did not think about a field goal. He was going for it and had two tight ends and Noah Brown, their best blocking receiver, on the field but had to call a time out with the play clock running down.
The Cowboys changed personnel to three tight ends and one back. The Eagles had nine defenders in the box. They knew what was coming.
"Get me the rock," Elliott said.
The left side of the line blocked down but rookie tight end Dalton Schultz was beaten at the snap by Brandon Graham, forcing Elliott to his left where an unblocked Malcolm Jenkins was waiting. Elliott was willing to carry Jenkins just far enough for a yard and a first down.
Three plays later Prescott and Cooper hooked up for a 15-yard touchdown and the Cowboys had their walk-off win.