Clarence Hill’s 5 Things the Dallas Cowboys need to do beat the Indianapolis Colts

Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

The Dallas Cowboys are riding high, seemingly on the brink of back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1995-96 and consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2006-2007.

Quarterback Dak Prescott is a huge reason why the team is considered a favorite to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.

A ESPN probability chart recently listed the Cowboys and Kansas Chiefs as the most likely Super Bowl participants. Since Prescott’s return from a fractured thumb, the Cowboys have the league’s highest scoring offense at 33.8 points per game, the best third-down percentage at 57.1% and the second most yards per game with 416.2.

Add in a rushing game and a defense that both rank seventh and the Cowboys are playing as well as any team in the NFL. Only two NFC teams have a better record than the 8-3 Cowboys: the Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) and Minnesota Vikings (9-2). And they beat the latter by 37 points two weeks ago.

It comes back to Prescott being the key to it all.

Backup Cooper Rush did a good job keeping the ship afloat during Prescott’s absence but the offense running at peak efficiency now.

“He’s hitting it with a full head of steam,” receiver CeeDee Lamb said. “He’s starting to finally hit midseason form and we cooking now.”

The Cowboys host the Indianapolis Colts at 7:20 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium. Here are five things they need to do to beat the Colts:

Ezekiel Elliott feeling better

Tony Pollard is still the Cowboys leading rusher with 136 carries for 761 yards.

But two-time rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott is starting to feel like his old self again after he had 16 carries for a season-high 92 yards in the 28-20 victory against the New York Giants on Thanksgiving Day.

It was his second game back after he missed two games with a sprained knee. And now that the Cowboys have had 10 days off, Elliott feels ever better.

“I feel a lot better, getting better every day,” Elliott said. “I almost feel I can get out this brace but you know keep it on just just just for safety reasons. But yeah, I feel good It felt good just to get back rolling.”

Elliott said he may consider removing the brace in a couple of weeks if he continues to improve and get better

“Right now, it’s working. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

Stop the run and let Micah Parsons feast on Matt Ryan

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has nothing but respect and admiration for Colts quarterback Matt Ryan.

As he should.

Ryan was Quinn’s quarterback when led the Falcons to the Super Bowl as head coach in 2016.

“He is a rare and relentless competitor,” Quinn said. “That’s probably one of the first things that you’ll find out about him, being around for a long time.”

But those days are long over. The Falcons moved on from Quinn and Ryan. The focus for the Cowboys will be to stop the running of Johnathan Taylor and then feast on Quinn, who has been sacked 32 times in 10 games and has already had career-high 13 fumbles.

The Cowboys lead the league with 45 sacks, led by Micah Parsons, who has 12 with three forced fumbles.

He says he can sense when a sack is coming.

“I do get a little twitch,” Parsons said. “It’s almost a feeling.

Expect him to be twitchy against Ryan once they contain Taylor on the ground.

CeeDee Lamb finally producing like a No. 1 receiver

That the Cowboys remain in hot pursuit of free agent receiver Odell Beckham shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the team has a clear No. 1 option in Lamb.

Lamb leads the Cowboys with 64 catches for 857 yards and five touchdowns. And he has taken off since quarterback Prescott returned with 31 catches, 448 receiving yards, and three touchdowns over the last five games. Lamb has produced 24 first downs and has had 11 catches of at least 20 receiving yards during that span.

He’s also topped the 100-yard barrier in two of the last three games.

He had 15 catches for 150 yards against the Green Bay Packers, both career highs, and 11 catches for 106 yards against the New York Giants.

“There’s a lot of questions not being asked now,” Lamb said.

Cowboys can’t take the Colts lightly

This game should be a no-brainer.

The Cowboys are 8-3 and on a roll. The Colts are 4-7-1 and enter the game on a short week after a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, their second loss in a row.

The Cowboys are doing their best to guard against overconfidence.

“We’re not going to get caught up in records or thinking we can just walk out there and beat these guys,” Prescott said. “We’ve got to continue preparing and give them respect, but know we are — in the same sense.”

The Cowboys learned their lesson in a 31-28 overtime loss to a Green Bay Packers team that had been riding a 5-game losing streak.

Every game matters.

“Respect every team or you’ll be very upset with yourself,” Prescott said. “These guys know how important it is to win every game. Coach (MIke McCarthy) does a great job of keeping that in his messaging, and it stays in the forefront of our mind.”

What’s also true is that McCarthy had to reinforce that messaging with some choice curse words after a bad practice on Wednesday. The Cowboys got the message loud and clear.

“It was my favorite breakdown of the year,” Prescott said. “You got to look a guy in the eye sometimes and tell him ‘He’s wrong, he messed up’. And that’s what he did. And he did it to the whole team: players, coaches, everybody.”

Owning the NFC North to sweeping the AFC South

The NFL schedule makers have an odd sense of humor or curious case of timing when it came to constructing the Cowboys schedule.

They had four straight games in October and November against the AFC North. The Cowboys went 3-1 in that stretch before a win against the NFC East rival New York Giants on Thanksgiving Day.

Now, they begin a stretch of three straight games against the AFC South, starting with the Colts, then the Houston Texans before a visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They will host the Philadelphia Eagles before finishing their AFC South stretch at the Tennessee Titans.

While it’s easy to point to records of the Colts (4-7-1), Texans (1-9-1) and Jaguars (4-7) and say this should be the beginning of a three-game sweep, McCarthy said their unfamiliarity makes them dangerous.

“These uncommon opponents, we got three in a row here. That’s where my mind is,” McCarthy said.