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PFT preseason power rankings No. 6: Dallas Cowboys

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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Dak Prescott has proclaimed the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East again. If so, they will accomplish some things they haven’t in a long time.

The Cowboys haven’t repeated as division champions since 1996, the year after the franchise’s last Super Bowl championship; they have not posted back-to-back winning seasons since 2008-09; and it’s been since 1995-96 that the Cowboys have had back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.

However, because of their talent on offense, the Cowboys head into 2017 as Super Bowl contenders.

Prescott won offensive rookie of the year honors with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions; Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards, earning him six MVP votes; Dez Bryant remains a big-play threat; and the Cowboys have three All-Pro offensive linemen.

It’s the lack of talent on defense that invites questions about how far the Cowboys will go this season. They lost six defensive players in free agency who combined for 64 starts last season, and the Cowboys spent seven draft picks on defensive players to replace them. The Cowboys are younger on defense than last season, but are they better?

Biggest positive change: The Cowboys lost 11 players in free agency and two more to retirement. They didn’t make any ballyhooed moves. But Tony Romo’s retirement assures two things: The Cowboys don’t have to worry about their all-time leading passer winning a Super Bowl elsewhere; and the quarterback controversy of last season is over. Dak Prescott won the job after Romo injured his back in the preseason, but even after Romo read a concession speech upon his return, a quarterback controversy remained. Romo’s departure leaves no question: This is Prescott’s team. The Cowboys veterans turned the keys over to Prescott this offseason, empowering him as their leader.

Biggest negative change: The Cowboys offensive line has earned the right to call itself the NFL’s best. Three linemen made first-team All-Pro honors last season. However, while center Travis Frederick, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin return, the Cowboys lost the other two starters with whom they ended last season. Left guard Ron Leary signed with Denver in free agency, and right tackle Doug Free retired. The Cowboys moved left guard La’el Collins, who started the first three games last year before season-ending toe surgery, to right tackle and have often-injured Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, competing at left guard. The Cowboys might need some time to adjust to the changes.

Coaching thermometer: Jason Garrett enters the third year of a five-year deal with job security after last season’s 13-3 finish and NFL coach of the year honors. Garrett, though, has only a 58-46 record with two playoff appearances and one playoff victory in six full seasons as head coach. If he doesn’t get the Cowboys to the championship game this season, the heat will be on for next season.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Jason Witten. Truly one of the NFL’s all-time good guys. He is all about team on the field, and all about helping others off it. In 2012, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Five years after Witten’s retirement, Hall of Fame selectors will discuss his career. Witten has missed only one game in his career, sitting out a game against the Eagles his rookie season with a broken jaw, and he rarely misses practice. Who can forget his signature play from 2007 against the Eagles when Witten ran helmet-less down the field for a 53-yard gain?

How they can prove us wrong: Cowboys fans are painfully aware their team hasn’t made the NFC Championship Game since 1995, which was the last time they won the Super Bowl. They are 3-9 in the postseason since. As good as Tony Romo was, becoming the team’s all-time leading passer, he was 2-4 in the postseason. The Cowboys’ past two playoff losses – in 2014 and 2016 – came against the Packers when they couldn’t get enough consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Getting to the passer continues to be a trouble spot for the Cowboys.

Dallas has not had a player with double-digit sacks since defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013, and it has not had a “war daddy” pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round, but he isn’t that. Rod Marinelli instead will rely on a rotation of pass rushers that includes DeMarcus Lawrence, Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper, with hopes of wearing down offensive lines.

The Cowboys need more than 36 sacks and more than nine interceptions on defense, and they need Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to continue to do what they did last season on offense.

The Cowboys will be hard pressed to win 13 games again, especially if Elliott misses any games because of an NFL suspension. But with a defense expected to feature four players who have yet to play a down in the NFL, the Cowboys actually could be better going into the 2017 postseason than they were in 2016 when they went four weeks between meaningful games.