As O.C.C. noted in a post earlier this morning, your Dallas Cowboys are now in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, with a schedule that places them in the driver's seat. Just think: in the past four weeks, as the Cowboys have scratched out a 4-0 record, all three division rivals have gone 1-3, including a perfect week 10 (Dallas wins, all others lose). In a veritable blink of the eye, as O.C.C. points out, the 'Boys have gone from third to first place. I know that Jason Garrett would vilify me for saying this but, given the relative ease of the remaining schedule, it's hard not to see Dallas finishing at 10-6, en route to a division crown.
But what might that mean? For much of this season, as the above suggests, we have been parsing the fortunes of a .500 team. The ascent from the morass of mediocrity has been so sudden, so swift, that I, for one, find myself needing to take a moment to survey the landscape from unexpectedly high ground. What are the Cowboys? What does their record mean? And: dare we discuss such topics as playoff positioning and matchups? Of course! You didn't think ol' Rabble would shy away from the hard issues, didja? Without further ado, then, here are some random thoughts and a whole lot of premature speculation for the homestretch:
The wheat from the chaff: When asked about his team in September and October, Bill Parcells would always tell the press to "wait until Thanksgiving," as it was at that point that the larger season picture began to come into focus. Indeed, at this point in the season, as we wipe gravy from our chins, the NFC has neatly separated into haves and have nots, with the Giants, at 6-5, as the only "middle-class" squad. A two-game gulf separates the NYG from a cluster of 4-7 teams; the Cowboys, at 7-4, are tied with the Bears, Falcons and Lions. The key is that, other than Atlanta, none of those teams have a chance of winning their divisions. As a division leader, Dallas effectively wins any playoff-position tiebreakers with these teams.
Rooting interest: I know a lot of Cowboys fans were rooting for New Orleans last night, as a Saints victory dropped the Jints out of a tie for first. In the larger scheme of things, however, did we really want the Saints to win? Let's take a look at the NFC playoff seedings. Unless something very unexpected occurs, nobody's going to catch the Packers, who are clearly the NFL's best team (and, to my mind, the most talented, deepest team since the '93 Cowboys). I'm gonna give the top seed to the Pack.
Despite their setback @ Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, San Francisco is set up nicely for the stretch run, with the same "bye" week Dallas just enjoyed, and, other than a week 15 home tilt against the Steelers, a lot of games against NFC West patsies. San Francisco has a clear identity--run the ball and play great defense--and has won with it consistently, grinding down opponents. As with Green Bay, unless there is an unforeseen el foldo on the horizon, it's hard to see a team other than the 'Niners as the second seed.
The one team that seems built to catch them is New Orleans. The Saints are a game behind San Fran but, since they are two games behind in the conference standings, would need to make up two games in the remaining five. Moreover their schedule, with home games against Detroit and Atlanta and a trip to Tennessee, features more teams with a late-season stake than does the 'Niners slate. Conceivably, Atlanta could beat New Orleans to win the division; given the Saints superior division record, I feel pretty secure slotting the Saints as the third seed.
If this falls into place, your Dallas Cowboys would be the fourth seed--which is probably where they would deserve to be, as the winner of arguably the weakest of the NFC's four divisions. As such, they would earn a home playoff game, against the #5 seed, which is likely to be drawn from among the Falcons, Bears, and Lions--all winnable games, although Atlanta seems to be gaining steam. Let's say they win in round one; what would that earn them? Well, if New Orleans were to be upset, they would go to San Francisco, where they have already demonstrated the ability to win. If the Saints and Cowboys both win, however, Dallas travels to Green Bay. As Scooby Doo might say: "ruh roah."
This is why I was rooting for the Giants, even if I didn't think they had a snowball's chance. If the Cowboys are going to win the division, they'll have to beat New York anyway, and I have confidence that they will at least split the two remaining games, which would be enough to capture the title. After that? I like their chances much better as the third seed than as the fourth.
Matchups: Last night, watching the NO-NYG game, I tweeted something to the effect of "It's nice that the Cowboys are in first, but does anybody really think they can contain New Orleans or Green Bay?" Certainly, they can; as responders pointed out, in the NFL, the "any given Sunday" effect is always in place. But how many of those "cross your fingers" road games do you want for your 'Boys? I like their chances to pull out one such contest. Two or more? Not so much. Especially if those involve either the Saints or Packers
The main reason for this is that both of those teams present tremendous matchup problems for the Dallas defense, specifically in the passing game. While I tend to like the Cowboys corners more than most people, and think that a healthy Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick match up well against almost everyone, both of the aforementioned teams have more weapons than the Cowboys are reasonably equipped to handle. Consider Green Bay in four-wide, which might well pit Jordy Nelson against Alan Ball. Feeling confident in that, after seeing Ball struggle against Miami's Brian Hartline? How about Barry Church and Sean Lee against Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles? Both Dallas defenders are game, but we saw against Philadelphia what an offense capable of exploiting the entire field can do to the Cowboys, even with Lee and Church.
Managing expectations: Obviously, such talk gets us waaaay ahead of ourselves. On the other hand, given the way they are hyped by the national media, I think its crucial that we, as fans, maintain the long view on this team, and remind ourselves that they are very much a work in progress. One of the keys between 2010's dismal record and this year's comparatively solid one is that the Cowboys have received much improved coaching, from coordinators and position coaches alike. The result is improved focus, toughness and technique, which have served to compensate for some fairly significant talent deficiencies that are most evident in the middle of both the offense and defensive units.
Against similarly-constructed teams, Dallas' coaching staff can--and has--schemed their way to advantages and to victories. But those deficiencies--which were exposed so thoroughly in Philadelphia, when the Cowboys played hard but were overmatched in terms of speed and, hence, ability to cover the entire field--will be exposed against the NFC's elite offenses.
When I look at this team, I'm reminded of the 1991 squad, which had some key (read: Hall of Fame) pieces in place, but significant deficiencies at defensive end, middle linebacker, and in the secondary. In spite of these, they scrapped and clawed their way to an 11-5 regular season record, capping it off with a 17-13 wild card win on the road in Chicago, thanks to a blocked punt, a goal line stand and three Bears turnovers. The next week, at Detroit, the Lions' three receiver sets exposed the run-conscious Cowboys (Detroit had a fellow by the name of Barry Sanders toting the rock).
That offseason, Jimmy and Jerry made several shrewd moves intended to shore up their pass defense (drafting Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson for the secondary; replacing heavy-legged MLB Jack Del Rio with fleet rookie Robert Jones; trading for Charles Haley) and, with the leagues top-rated defense, roared to the first of three Lombardis. I'm not predicting that the Cowboys will do the same in 2012. What I am saying is that Garrett and Co. will be using the rest of this season as an ideal testing ground, one in which the rest of the league will show them what they need to fix.
Poised on the cusp of heady times, as December rolls in, we should do the same.