And that counts. The NFC favorite won't be known until the games are played this week and we know the match-ups. Because match-ups matter in this parity-addled NFL. In fact, match-ups have always mattered. Some quick historical snapshots:
1970 -- Dallas rallies from 5-4 and wins the division at 10-4. The defense gets hot and carries the team to its first Super Bowl. Let's consider the role favorable matchups played in the turnaround. That fourth loss came in the Cotton Bowl on a Monday Night against the then St. Louis Cardinals. The bloody final was Cards 38, Cowboys 0.
This, weeks after the Cards had spanked the Cowboys 20-7 at home. Dallas did not match up with St. Louis that year, losing two by a combined 58-7, but the Cards got big headed after that blanking, which raised them at 7-2, and lost their last three games. Their December loss to the Lions gave Detroit the wild card. Dallas beat them 5-0 in the divisional round. It's doubtful the Cowboys could have squeezed a win from another rematch against the Cards, given how lopsided the first two games were.
1995 -- The Cowboys finished 12-4 but lost two to the 6-10 Washington Redskins. They also were spanked by Jerry RIce and the 49ers at Texas Stadium. Dallas had no answer for a package which put Rice in the slot and set him loose against Cowboys' linebackers and nickel safety Bill Bates. A rematch looked possible until the 49ers were upset by the Packers, who then lost to Dallas in the NFC Championship Game. Dallas got the opponent it could handle.
1999 -- Tom Coughlin's Jacksonville Jaguars rolled through the NFL, winning fourteen behind a top six offense and the league's best scoring defense. They smashed Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins 62-7 in the divisional round, sending J.J. into his second retirement. The only team to beat them in their first 17 contests was Jeff Fisher's Tennessee Titans, who won both regular season contests.
Fisher's Titans looked set for a quick playoff exit, until they stunned Wade Phillips' Bills with the Music City Miracle kickoff return lateral. They upset the Colts the following week and gave the Jags an upset stomach the following Sunday, beating Jacksonville for the third time. The Jags were perfect against everybody but the Titans, but it was the Titans they had to face, and so the Jags' Super Bowl dreams vanished.
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Let's take a quick look at the match-ups again. The Giants did the Cowboys a tremendous favor yesterday, flopping in their Giants Stadium finale. Let's say, just for argument's sake, that the Cowboys were to beat the Eagles next week, while those Giants won out and the Packers lost to Arizona in the desert on the final weekend.
Dallas would likely have claimed the 3rd seed and faced, drumroll please ... the New York Giants.
I know few people relish a potential rematch against the Eagles in the wild-card round, but that looks far preferable to me than a third clash with New York. The Giants are Wade Phillips' bogey team this year. Eli Manning's offense is the only group to top 21 on his defense this year. The 'Gints did it twice in fact, scoring 33 and 31 points. Dallas has no answer for Steve Smith at the moment and New York's departure is the best news any Cowboys partisan could see today.
Every team in the NFC field has warts, and the tourney winner will likely come down to which team gets the most favorable road to Miami. The Cardinals have lots of trouble at home for some reason. The Packers offensive line has leaked all year and their secondary surrendered 500 yards to Ben Roethlisberger two weeks ago. The Saints offense has suddenly lost its mojo, scoring 17 in back-to-back losses after averaging 36 points the first thirteen games. The Vikings are also staggering. First, the Favre/Childress soap opera sucked up all the media oxygen. Last night, the defense broke down in an overtime loss to the Bears. The Eagles offense has rolled the past few weeks but the formerly stout Eagles D has hemorrhaged points lately.
The Cowboys? We know their foibles. They don't power run. Their protection can break down if you blitz them hard. Their safeties and inside linebackers are vulnerable against the pass.
They also have a major strength. That same defense which could not stop the Giants has stopped everybody else. They've held the other big-time NFC offenses way below their averages. The Saints scored 17 against them; the Packers got 17; the Eagles 16 in their first meeting. The Falcons are the only opponent besides New York to top 20 points since week two.
Dallas' offense can move the ball, but the lack of a power gear means they score less than past teams, despite ranking high in yardage. I see Dallas following a blue print which worked magically two years ago. I give you the '07 Giants. The Super Bowl champion '07 Giants:
Playoff Points Scored
- vs. Tampa Bay -- 24
- vs. Dallas -- 21
- vs. Green Bay -- 23
- vs. New England -- 17
That's not the record of an offensive juggernaut, but the offense avoided turnovers and coupled their play with a defense which held its opponents to an average of 16.2 points a game. The Cowboys are averaging just under 23 points a game right now. Getting to 24 is likely the offense's target. Dallas has the best defense in the conference and they've matched up with every remaining offense they've faced. That's a big plus on Dallas' side.
Points Allowed, NFC Playoff Field