We all know what the numbers say. A win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would help keep at least some faint hope alive for the Dallas Cowboys to make the playoffs. A loss would ratchet the difficulty level up to where the team would almost have to run the table to have any chance at all, and even that might not be enough. It is just the latest in the list of "must win" games.
But it goes much deeper than that. As Michael Sisemore has detailed in his post on stopping the noise, the team is thoroughly on edge right now. The outcome of the game versus the Bucs will have a lot more to do with the way the team plays going forward than just what it means in the difficult race to make the postseason.
Based on the evidence to date, Matt Cassel looks like a lot better option for the team as the veteran backup quarterback that Jason Garrett wants to have than Brandon Weeden. It is likely that the team will be interested in signing him to a new contract after the season no matter how this game turns out, unless he has a complete meltdown. He has played well in much of his time on the field and already knows the system and his teammates. A close loss, however, would not give the team the proof a win can. By leading the team to a badly needed victory, Cassel would give the staff a concrete bit of evidence that the team could win if Tony Romo should miss time in the future (I am bruising my knuckles knocking on wood after typing that). It would also inspire some confidence from his teammates, something that Weeden has not accomplished. While everyone knows that Romo is extremely important to the team and its chances to succeed, it badly needs to know that it can scratch out at least one win against a less-than-stellar team. The several close losses have to have hurt the collective confidence of the team, as evidenced by the emotional and over-dramatized outburst by Dez Bryant. Winning in Tampa would go a long way towards healing that.
It also would take some of the pressure off Romo's shoulders when he gets back on the field. The team needs to show it can still move the ball, score, and stop the other team without him. Although he is the biggest cog, the team cannot get the attitude that it has to wait for him to bail them out. A win would show that to some degree. A loss would just increase the belief that the team hangs all hope on Romo having a good or even outstanding game for them to win.
While one player can and at times has to rise up and lift his team, no one is good enough to do that consistently. The team can still regain some of its belief in itself with wins after Romo returns, but it would be much easier for them if they have already done that with a win in the last one before he takes the field again. The knowledge that the rest of the team is able to carry their share of the load will help them feed off Romo's leadership instead of just clinging to it in desperation. On paper, this should be the most winnable game they have played since Romo's injury, but we have seen how expectations have been shattered in game after game. The rest of the offense needs to play well. The defense absolutely needs to get sacks, takeaways, or hopefully both to prove they can be a factor in getting back into the win column.
A win will do a lot of healing. A loss would just aggravate the wounds. The impact will linger beyond this season. Even if they fall short at the end of this campaign, a strong run based off beating the Buccaneers will carry over into the preparations for 2016. And a loss would leave lingering doubts about just how fragile this team is. The topic of whether or not this is really a good team is valid. Although the severity of the injury problem is a huge factor, the Cowboys need to show that they have some ability to overcome even this year's litany of woes. Otherwise, getting back on track in the future just becomes more and more difficult.