The wins just keep stacking up for the Dallas Cowboys. Eleven games into the season, and they are still on the longest winning streak in the history of the franchise. Their 10-1 record has them in the lead for the top seed in the playoffs. With five games left in the regular season, it seems a foregone conclusion that Dallas is in the playoffs, and now that they have swept Washington, the New York Giants are the only remaining obstacle to winning the NFC East. The question now is whether they can hold onto the top spot. It is looking like the only real challenger for home field advantage through the playoffs is the Seattle Seahawks, who are a game and a half back pending the outcome of their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And with AT&T Stadium finally seeming like it is an advantage for the Cowboys, they would really prefer to have a shot to make their playoff run in Arlington.
The five games left are at the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, at the Giants in a Sunday night rematch of the only blot on the Cowboys’ record, home against the Buccaneers, home against the Detroit Lions in the final Monday Night game, and the season finale in Philadelphia against the Eagles. (My apologies for having the Lions and Buccaneers reversed in the first version published.) All of those teams are at .500 or above, and all currently still have at least a shot at the playoffs themselves.
Dallas has proven that it has one of the top offensive units in the league, currently third in points scored per game and fourth in yards, despite the somewhat reduced output in yards in the Thanksgiving Day win. (Washington is, somewhat ironically, first in yards this year, but only eighth in points per game, which is as good a summary of what happened to them against the Cowboys as any). The worry for Dallas is the defense, which was gashed late in the last game. But that may not be as big a concern going forward.
You will not face a passing attack these final five games like WAS. https://t.co/LxoFurln2E— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) November 26, 2016
There is a lot to that, since the highest scoring team left for Dallas is Philadelphia, which averages 24.1 points a game, and is trending a bit downwards since their hot start to the season. That is only good for 14th in the league. They are also the only remaining opponent with a really effective running game. Their 118.3 yards a game ties them for sixth overall in the league. Tampa Bay is sixteenth, and the other three opponents are grouped closely together - as the last three teams in the league. This means the Cowboys are facing a lot of one-dimensional attacks, which their whole plan is predicated on forcing the other team into anyway. It looks like the Cowboys are facing some winnable games, with the Eagles perhaps the most likely to have a real chance. And the Eagles are dead last in the division. They may be completely out of the playoff picture by that last game, which might affect the effort they put on the field.
Flipping it over to defense, the task facing the Cowboys looks a bit more daunting. They are still tenth in points allowed, but face some really good defenses down the stretch. Minnesota still boasts the second best scoring defense in the league, Philly comes in just two spots down the list, and the Giants are only one behind the Cowboys. Detroit at 16 and Tampa Bay at 24 are less concerning. Still, the Dallas offense seems to be up to any challenge it faces the rest of the way, if the defense can continue with the bend-don’t-break approach. And with five teams that look less likely to be able to hold onto the ball than Washington was, that may still carry them to several more wins.
Going beyond raw stats, Football Outsiders has the Cowboys and the remaining teams on the schedule ranked thus in their proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) rating (prior to the Thanksgiving Day games):
2. Philadelphia (their 5-5 record has them as the biggest underachiever this year in FO’s estimation).
16. New York
23. Tampa Bay
DVOA has been a good predictor of game outcomes, again with the odd exception of the Eagles this year, and would indicate that the Cowboys should be favored in all but the final game of the season this year. If it should hold up, Dallas could go into that game with a 14-1 record, the top seed locked up no matter what Seattle does the rest of the way, and nothing at stake. Many starters may be on the bench if that is the case.
It would also mean a new record in this record-shattering season, since the Cowboys have never finished a regular season with more than 13 wins. That may seem too much to hope for, but this entire year has been far more than any could imagine at the start. Dallas cannot afford to start looking ahead, but with Jason Garrett, that is one thing that seems highly unlikely. The biggest worry at this point is the always dreaded “I” word, and due to the incredible developments this season, the Cowboys have a deep bench on offense, particularly that backup quarterback.
The most likely games where the Cowboys could still stumble are the two remaining division games. Those contests are always ones where the records should be given little consideration, and with the Giants, Eli Manning is always capable of a very good performance to lift his team. He also can lay an egg at any time, but that should not be something you count on.
The worst case scenario is probably a 12-4 season and the NFC East crown, and it would take a couple of true departures from what we have seen from the Cowboys this season. 13-3 is more likely, and 14-2 seems not much less probable. Running the table the rest of the way seems a bit of a long shot - but it is hardly unimaginable.
Getting the top seed in the NFC should be the goal, and it is within Dallas’ grasp. They just have to do what Garrett also preaches, finish. For ten games in a row, that is exactly what they have done. Don’t bet against them doing it the rest of the way.