The immediate future looked bleak for the Dallas Cowboys when the team reached the half-way point of the 2018 regular season. The third-place Cowboys held a 3-5 record after losing two consecutive games, including a key divisional matchup with the Washington Redskins, who sat atop the NFC East. Dallas also had to contend with the reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, who ranked second in the division.

As Dallas boarded their plane to Philadelphia for their Week 10 matchup on Monday Night Football, it was do-or-die time for the ‘Boys, as the next three weeks would likely define the team's 2018 season. The Cowboys were victorious over the Eagles, who were then blown out by the New Orleans Saints the following week.

Unfortunately for the Redskins, disaster hit the team in Week 11. Not only did Washington lose their fourth game of the year, but they also lost their starting quarterback Alex Smith to a horrific season-ending injury, 33 years to the day after Redskins QB Joe Theismann‘s career was cut short due to a similar gruesome leg injury at the hands of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. With the Redskins heading to Dallas on a short week with a career-backup quarterback in Colt McCoy under center, the Cowboys were in position to take command of the NFC East — which they did with a 31-23 victory on Thanksgiving.

Randy Gregory, Cowboys

As the NFL enters Week 13 of the 2018 regular season, here are the three reasons the Dallas Cowboys currently find themselves in the driver's seat in the NFC East, and will end the season with another division title.

LB Leighton Vander Esch made Sean Lee expendable

When the Dallas Cowboys drafted linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, reviews of Dallas' first-round selection were mixed. Fans of the Cowboys made their negative feelings known, both within the confines of AT&T Stadium and on social media. The opinions of NFL analysts were a bit more varied, as many gave Dallas a low passing mark — although one Dallas fan was able to find seven writers who gave the Vander Esch selection an “A” grade.

The immediate negative reaction from the Dallas fan base is understandable. Dallas' oft-injured All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee remains a fan favorite and an essential part of the Cowboys' success in recent years. Last season, Dallas' defense allowed 11 more points per game when their top linebacker was sidelined due to injury, which resulted in a 1-5 record for a Cowboys team that was 8-1 with Lee on the field.

Since the problem with Lee over the course of his career has been his inability to stay on the field, the Cowboys spent a first-rounder on a bigger, faster, younger and cheaper version of Lee — Leighton Vander Esch. With the addition of their breakout rookie linebacker, Dallas is no longer dependent on Lee for victory.

In 2018, the Cowboys are 1-4 with Lee as their starting WILL linebacker and 5-1 with Lee sidelined and Vander Esch starting in his place. When Lee eventually returns from injury, Dallas' defense is likely to take a step forward, but more importantly, the Cowboys are now able to win football games without Lee, thanks to their 2018 first-round draft pick:

WR Amari Cooper ignited the Cowboys' offense

The Cowboys have another controversial personnel move to thank for their 2018 playoff run. Dallas' expensive acquisition of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper signifies the team is in “win-now” mode, given that their economic advantage of the NFL's cheapest starting QB will soon come to an end.

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While the trade was initially surrounded by criticism — some of which remains valid due to the high cost of the transaction — Cooper has proven to be the missing piece the Cowboys' lackluster passing game needed for success. Prior to Cooper's addition to the lineup, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott amassed less than 200 passing yards in over half of the team's games. With Cooper lined up on the outside, Prescott produced four straight performances with over 200 passing yards, including a season-high 289 passing yards and a pair of touchdown passes in Week 12.

Although it is rare for wide receivers who switch teams to be immediately productive, Cooper has enjoyed a resurgence since his move to Texas. After beginning his career with two consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, Cooper's play dropped off significantly in 2017, and his pedestrian play continued over the first six games of 2018. However, Cooper has been much more productive as a member of the Cowboy, despite playing fewer games with a new quarterback in a new offensive system.

Coopers' 22 receptions for 349 receiving yards and three touchdowns, when extrapolated over a 16-game season, would give the fourth-year wideout 88 catches for 1,396 yards and 12 scores. Each of these statistics would be career highs for Cooper, and would give the Cowboys the Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver the team lacked over the first half of the 2018 season.

The Cowboys' advantageous remaining schedule

Of the three teams in the hunt for the NFC East title, the Dallas Cowboys don't have the easiest remaining schedule, but they do have the most advantageous schedule of the three teams with their sights set on the NFC East prize.

The Cowboys' remaining opponents have a combined record of 28-27, compared to the Eagles at 35-19, and the Redskins at 21-33. Dallas kicks off Week 13 with a difficult Thursday-night matchup with the New Orleans Saints, but then has extra time to prepare for a home game against Philadelphia, who will be playing on short rest after their upcoming Monday Night Football game. The Cowboys finish the season with three winnable games against the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants.

Philadelphia has the toughest end to the 2018 season, as each of their remaining opponents currently holds a winning record. The Eagles also visit both Dallas and Washington, and play the Redskins an additional time in Philadelphia. Sandwiched in between their divisional games are difficult matchups with the 10-1 Los Angeles Rams and the 7-3 Houston Texans. While the Eagles technically control their own destiny, they have a rough road going forward.

From a strength-of-schedule standpoint, the Redskins have the easiest schedule of the three teams, but they also have a significant quarterback problem, and play three of their five final games on the road. Washington's easiest path to winning the NFC East would be a complete collapse by the Eagles, who the Redskins face next Monday night and again in Week 17.

If Washington can beat the Eagles twice and the New York Giants in Week 14, they would be favored over the Cowboys to win the division title, as their remaining games are both winnable AFC South matchups. But while a healthy Smith would make this hypothetical scenario plausible, it's difficult to imagine the Redskins dominating divisional opponents with McCoy under center. So far, the betting public agrees, as the Redskins are currently 6.5-point underdogs against the Eagles on Monday night, per sportsbook BetOnline.

The stars have aligned for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018. If the team can keep their current pace, the Cowboys are poised for an NFC East title and a potential deep playoff run.