It's not quite a must win game this week, but very close to one.
A loss would make things a lot harder for Dallas. Not only would it drop the Cowboys into a tie with the New York Giants, it would give the Giants a leg up on the head-to-head tiebreaker, and put the Cowboys in a position of having to worry about what the other contenders for the wild card position do the rest of the season. A win would have Dallas clearly back in the driver's seat and would give them a bit more room for error going forward. One more win after that would likely put Dallas into the playoffs, and two more wins would seal the division.
But more important than the raw numbers, Dallas needs the win to prove to themselves and the rest of the league that they are deserving of making the playoffs.
At this point, I could try to write some nicely composed stuff about the situation. But why waste my time when one of our readers, Leon, has already done such a good job:
This team will not be defined by a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. This team will be defined by bouncing back (or not) against division rivals, by battling for the playoffs.
This team is good enough or it is not, and the measuring stick is in the preparation for Sunday night. The New York Giants are balling, they usually beat this team, we lose at night, in December, whatever. You can think whatever you want about this game, the team better know what is up.
Check out his whole comment here. He nails it pretty well. If the team wins this one, then there is the possibility of getting on a roll and making a run in the postseason. If they don't win then the team is not ready this year to go into the playoffs, at least in my opinion.
My forecast for where the problems could be is a bit long, because the more problems there are, the more there is to write about. One disturbing thing is that there seem to be more issues cropping up as the season progresses, which is exactly the opposite of what I had hoped for.
Just a reminder, the lower the number, the better, because my percentage is an attempt to quantify the likelihood of failure.
My guesses after the jump.
Quarterback The numbers here stay the same, because I think Tony Romo is far more likely to be the answer to the problems than otherwise. If he has a limitation, I think it is imposed by the game plan and the expectation that he is to progress through his reads from long to short, which leaves him vulnerable to a strong pass rush (as discussed in KD's excellent post on the five sacks from the Arizona game). Tony is playing the best football of his career. If it were not for his mobility and determination, this team would probably be 4-8 at this point.
The one thing that is disturbing is that the team is still rolling with Stephen McGee as the only backup. I hope this is partly because he has shown the coaches enough to give them confidence that he can step in if needed. But I still wish they would figure out a way to replace Jon Kitna, at least as a fallback position (see: Houston Texans).
CHANCE OF QB BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Running Back The running game did not provide the help I think all of us expected against the Cardinals. They came in looking to stop the run and did so, holding the Cowboys to 75 total rushing yards. I am not sure if the coaches gave up on the run too soon, but there did not seem to be the punch the team needed, so that one is just hard to call. One positive sign was that Felix Jones averaged 6.0 yards a carry in his return. Unfortunately, he and DeMarco Murray only had 18 carries between them, which is not a stat that is usually associated with a win.
This week we will get to see if having Tony Fiammetta back will give a boost to the ground game. I don't think he is the only factor that is important, but sometimes the belief that something will work is as important as the actual impact it has. In any case, the Fiery One needs to provide a spark. Tony needs the help in forcing the pass rush to slow down so they don't get gouged by DeMarco and Felix.
CHANCE OF RB BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 20%
Tight End/Fullback I've already discussed Fiammetta's situation. I don't have a great feel for how well Shaun Chapas did, but I don't think he was too incompetent, and he did catch one nice pass out of the backfield. John Phillips was also pretty solid. However, there is some question as to whether Martellus Bennett is going to be full speed, since he suffered a rib injury on Sunday. I know a lot of people hate 'Tellus and would like to see him sit anyway, but he still seems to be ahead of Phillips in the minds of the coaches, and the team needs all of his blocking skills. And he has not dropped a pass in three games now.
At least we still have Jason Witten.
CHANCE OF TE/FB BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 20%
Wide Receiver This is one area of the offense that might be better off this week - but not enough to lower the number, partly because it is already quite low. Dez Bryant had his most complete game of the season against Arizona, and actually seemed to be more effective as the time wound down. Miles Austin is finally slated to return, and the team needs him. But there was a silver lining to him being out, in that Laurent Robinson has emerged as a key part of the receiving unit, and Jesse Holley is showing some good skills - he has caught every pass thrown at him this year. Unfortunately, that is only seven times total, but I think he could be a big factor the last month of the season. At the least, he gives us a little faith that the team can weather another ding to Miles or Dez. And I like to think about the Cowboys lining Dez, Laurent, the Senator, Jesse, and Miles up in a five receiver set. Plus think of all the combinations you could put out there if you throw Murray and Jones into the mix.
CHANCE OF WR BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Offensive Line Last week I talked about ups and downs. Well, there weren't many ups at all against the Cardinals. I am waiting for the weekly grades to get put up on the line (which will likely be done before I get this posted), but I already know there are likely to be some serious issues. A lot of the talk here is about how badly Phil Costa is doing at center. One thing that may be part of the story is that Arizona has some beasts up front - but then so do the Giants. However, while they have a pretty stout line, their linebackers are a bit suspect, and they play the 4-3, which Tony seems to handle better.
But I am scared. This is, I think, the one place the game is likely won or lost. These are the guys who will provide Tony time, and who will open the lanes for DeMarco and Felix. If they are not at least decent at both those tasks, Dallas will not be able to score - and the Giants showed last week that they can score with the best of them.
CHANCE OF OL BEING A PROBLEM: 70% Last time: 40%
Defensive Line I liked seeing Sean Lissemore show up in the stats. Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, and Jason Hatcher all had good games. But rabblerousr pointed out how the defense seems to sag late in games. After reading through the comments and theories on that article, I think that the guys up front just run out of enough gas to keep up the aggressive play Rob Ryan demands of them, even with the constant rotation. And when they start to slow down a bit at the end of the game, it exposes the middle linebackers not named Sean Lee and the secondary. This is a reason for the offense to keep drives alive, so these big hosses can rest and still have a little energy late.
CHANCE OF DL BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 40%
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee are still forces to be reckoned with. I think Anthony Spencer is still doing the job that Rob Ryan expects of him. But Keith Brooking is still too slow, making tackles but not always making stops. I just don't know how effective he is. And Bradie James did not show up on the stat sheet. I think the team really needs Bruce Carter to come along, but I don't know that he will be any factor at all this season. And Victor Butler may need some more snaps out there.
Hopefully, the stinger DWare had will not have any effects this week. Otherwise, it could be a long, sad evening in Arlington.
CHANCE OF LB BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 20%
Defensive Backs Do I actually have to talk about this? I'm quite depressed enough about things already.
Mike Jenkins had a good day, but Terence Newman was having trouble out there. And this group seemed to have a knack for getting a killer penalty at just the wrong time. This week they have to face Eli Manning, and unless the Cowboys can get the best pass rush they have had all season, it could be ugly. As much as we dislike Eli, he went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and almost outscored him.
CHANCE OF DB BEING A PROBLEM: 70% Last time: 70%
Special Teams We found out that Dan Bailey is human. One thing I would point out is that the field looked very sloppy and several players slipped during the game, so maybe that affected his kicking. I think he will bounce back.
Meanwhile, can we hear it for Mat McBriar? He totally neutralized Patrick Peterson, who is arguably the best kick returner in the game, at least among those not named Devin Hester, and maybe even when you include him. The rest of the special teams was also effective, with one good kick return and a good punt return that was sadly nullified by one of those penalty prone defensive backs.
CHANCE OF ST BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 40%
Coaching When I have faith in the coaches, they let me down. So hopefully the concerns I have this week mean that they will get it right.
The timeout confusion has been beat to death (and beyond) elsewhere, and will come back one last time before I am done. And Jason Garrett came across as defensive when he was talking to the media. Part of that may just be his natural distance from and unwillingness to give up anything to the press. If he calls things smarter and has better awareness late in the game this week, things may be all right. But I honestly don't know where to come down on this.
Same with Rob Ryan. Late in the game, yet another less than elite quarterback suddenly looked like the second coming of Joe Montana. And the touchdown run just looked like the players felt beaten. That is a let down that should not be tolerated. I hope he was all over their butts about it, and can come up with some solutions. I also think that he is running up against the personnel limitations he has.
CHANCE OF COACHING BEING A PROBLEM: 60% Last time: 20%
Jerry Jones I kind of feel really strange saying this, but I hope Jerry got JG alone at some point and jumped on his case. Garrett was confused at the end of the game and no matter how you look at it, he called a timeout that negated the game winning field goal. Any argument that Arizona might have blocked the kick or that they might not have gotten it off successfully is just pointless. We watched that ball go through the uprights and not count because Jason called that timeout.
The mistake can be forgiven. Not seeing it as something that he needs to correct in himself is inexcusable. He should have been ready, the kick team should have been prepared, and the whole thing should not have gone down like that. And Jason Garrett is responsible for fixing it. I hope Jerry Jones put a cold stare on and told Jason exactly that.
CHANCE OF JJ BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Dallas is still the leader in the NFC East. If they still are on Sunday night, it may be the start of something we will remember fondly. If they are not, it may be the start of something we would much rather not see.
So here's hoping they just go out and win the damn game.