Are The Cowboys A Playoff Caliber Team?

Is this Jason Garrett displaying the Eye of the Tiger, or spotting something worrisome?

Dallas leads the NFC East, a game ahead of New York, with a 7-5 record. It is the worst record among the NFC division leaders and tied with Denver for the worst division-leading record in the NFL. However, the Cowboys control their playoff fates. With three division games, including two versus the Giants in the final four weeks of the season, Dallas has little room for error though is poised to win the division if they can beat the Giants next week at home.

Once again we saw a schizophrenic team on Sunday. The Cowboys appeared to have control of the game going into the locker room with a touchdown lead at halftime. The defense was relentless and the offense was gaining rhythm. They weren't dominant, but it was a solid performance that was steadily improving. In the second half the team began a slow but steady decline. As the game progressed inconsistent play with mistakes and poor performances abound. Still, the Cowboys had a chance to win it in regulation and failed. Instead, the game continued and penalties, blown coverages, and missed tackles made the team seem inept in overtime.

We have seen the Cowboys win in remarkable fashion and we have also seen the team deteriorate and lose games in the fourth quarter. It is yet unclear which team will be gracing us in the final stretch of the season. After two hard fought victories in close games less than a week apart, the Cowboys were not able to put away the Cardinals for a third. Some games the Cowboys have me convinced Dallas will make a strong push for and into the playoffs. And yet, there are others that have me question their ability to even hold onto their lead in the division.

Perhaps the question isn't - Are the Cowboys a playoff caliber team? Perhaps more appropriate would be to ask - Will the Cowboys play like a playoff contender when it matters?

Many will focus on the timeout called just as Dan Bailey prepared for the game winning field goal in the fourth quarter. After a rather remarkable outing by the special teams units (barring the first missed field goal and two Orlando Scandrick penalties) they ended up coming up just short to win the game. ST Coach DeCamillis requested Jason Garrett call a time out as Bailey prepared for the game winning kick. The whistle blew as he went through the motions and the long field goal attempt was good. Of course, the attempt following the timeout failed and the Cowboys found themselves in overtime.

But more factors are to blame for the loss. The defense had four sacks in the first half and the secondary was celebrating the return of Mike Jenkins, but by the end of the game Kevin Kolb found ways to elude the pressure as the Cowboys struggled to get another sack while Terence Newman got progressively worse throughout the game. It seemed both Cowboys players and coaches were letting the team down by the end.

It is this inconsistency that appears to be the Cowboys' greatest flaw. It has led to too many close games, including three that went into overtime. Football teams can be measured and compared in a variety of ways using countless statistics, but I am a firm believer of the intangibles of football; the will to endure and the guts to fight for every inch for every second of the game. When so many factors collide on any given Sunday and the football field becomes a battlefield of precision turned to chaos, in which the whole is dependent on so many individuals to execute countless tasks and minute details, all during a hectic 60 minutes while being confronted by some of the best athletes on the planet, and colliding under the guidance of coaching strategies at odds, all the while bombarded by random explosions of luck, both good and bad...well, it's nearly impossible to predict the outcome.

Eventually, every team in the NFL will find itself clawing to win a close game. Sometimes, I think it's this immeasurable will and cohesion of a team believing in themselves and the leaders commanding them on the field that is the most important factor in football. Not to mention, the most elusive. Even a great team that is undefeated can lose to a team that is firing on all cylinders and simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility of defeat if everyone continues to believe and fight.

For a moment I was convinced Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan had orchestrated such a team. And though the Cowboys seem close, it appears they are still precariously on the edge, still just one misstep from disaster. The Cowboys have found themselves in such fortitude-testing close games many times this season, in fact, the game ending within seven points is steadily becoming the norm for Dallas. In looking at how other playoff contending teams have performed in similar circumstances we could discover a way to reveal if the Cowboys are indeed of equal caliber.

Unfortunately...

AFC Record Within 7 W/L % Games Win %
Patriots 9-3 4 2-2 0.333 0.500
Ravens 9-3 5 3-2 0.416 0.600
Texans 9-3 5 2-3 0.416 0.400
Broncos 7-5 9 6-3 0.750 0.666
Led by Tebow 6 5-1 0.750 0.833
NFC Record Within 7 W/L % Games Win %
Packers 12-0 4 4-0 0.333 1.000
Saints 9-3 4 3-1 0.333 0.750
49ers 10-2 6 5-1 0.500 0.833
Cowboys 7-5 8 4-4 0.666 0.500

Only the Broncos have more close games than the Cowboys this season. An assumption can be made that teams with fewer close games, like the Packers and Saints, are likely the strongest, but without knowing if they have lost a lot of games by big margins and can only win the few close games on their schedule it remains a statistic with a very necessary yet missing variable. Win percentage for close games would of course be a far more viable indicator. Unfortunately, the Cowboys are the worst NFC division leader in terms of win % for games within seven points. Perhaps being tied with the Patriots provides some comfort, but that leaves the Texans as the only NFL division leader with a worse win % than the Cowboys.

Worse still, I decided to see how the Cowboys measure up against teams still fighting for a wild card spot in the playoffs. It seems once again, the Cowboys have the worst win % for close games amongst all NFC playoff contenders.

AFC Record Within 7 W/L % Games Win %
Steelers 9-3 7 5-2 0.583 0.714
Jets 7-5 4 2-2 0.333 0.500
Bengals 7-5 7 3-4 0.583 0.428
Titans 7-5 6 3-3 0.500 0.500
Raiders 7-5 7 6-1 0.583 0.857
AFC Record Within 7 W/L % Games Win %
Bears 7-5 5 3-2 0.416 0.600
Lions 7-5 5 3-2 0.416 0.600
Falcons 7-5 7 4-3 0.583 0.571
Giants 6-6 6 4-2 0.500 0.666

While the Steelers and Raiders appear stronger than the Cowboys in close games, Dallas does at least stack up to the rest of the AFC playoff contenders...though those teams include the Titans, Jets, and Bengals.

The good news is that the season is not over and statistics aren't always foretelling. Not to mention some could assume a regression to the mean would have the NFC competition start losing some close games. There are also four games left on the schedule that could drastically alter the Cowboys win % record for close games by the end of the regular season.

Most would agree the Cowboys have the ability to compete against other playoff caliber teams. The question is, will they? I still have the audacity to hope that with time winding down and the playoffs on the line, this new and young team will get things together in time. I have faith that Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan and all the players are working hard, and who knows, if the Cowboys enter the playoffs on a hot streak having won a few close games against division rivals...perhaps they will tap into that intangible belief in themselves at the most opportune time.

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