Heading into the 2017 NFL playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys are the favorite in the NFC to get to the Super Bowl. By virtue of their 13-3 record they secured the #1 seed and will have home-field advantage. The only team to beat them when they were playing all their starters was the the New York Giants. Pretty solid credentials.
But, as we always do in sports, we look for the flaws. We try to find that thing that might spell doom for a team. So what’s the fatal flaw for the Cowboys on their trek to the Super Bowl? Well, there isn’t a consensus, but two competing theories.
Theory #1 - The Cowboys passing offense against elite defenses.
The Cowboys struggled against the Giants, and they barely beat the Vikings. What do those two teams have in common? Top-notch defenses, especially against the pass.
It’s a risky proposition having a rookie quarterback in the playoffs, but Dak Prescott did everything the Cowboys have needed him to do and more during the regular season. He’s completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns and ranks third in ESPN’s QBR rating, behind MVP front-runners Matt Ryan and Brady.
But Prescott’s performance against a top-10 pass defense per DVOA compared to everyone else is enlightening. He has a 86.9 passer rating against the better pass defenses in the league (6.6 yards per pass, 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio) but feasts on those outside the top 10 with a 122.1 rating (9.3 yards per pass, 16-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio).
But why were the Giants able to beat the Cowboys when no other team could? Well, it was one of the only good pass defenses Dallas faced all year.
Of the top 10 pass defenses ranked by opposing passer rating, only the Giants and Minnesota Vikings were on the Cowboys’ schedule in 2016. In two games against New York and one against Minnesota, Dak Prescott completed 54 of 100 passes for 531 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s a paltry 67.5 passer rating, while Prescott’s rating against the rest of the schedule was 115.3.
Yes, the Cowboys can lean on Ezekiel Elliott when the team faces a tough secondary, but when Prescott struggled against the Giants and Vikings the offense couldn’t put up points. Prior to Week 17, Dallas was held under 24 points just three times and it was only New York and Minnesota that managed to pull it off. Having a balanced offense is a key for Dallas and that could be tough against NFC teams like the Giants or Seahawks.
Theory #2 - The Cowboys defense, specifically the pass defense.
The Cowboys defense has been better than expected, but they still struggle statistically in the passing game. And even with improved sack numbers, the defensive line is a banged up unit.
Biggest weakness: The Cowboys had more sacks than any playoff team since Week 13, yet their defensive line remains a huge question mark. Defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are uncertain to play in the Divisional Round because of injury. Randy Gregory has been suspended. The emergence of David Irving as a legitimate edge rusher was an enormous development in December, but consider the opponents Dallas' banged-up group could face in the playoffs. Green Bay and Atlanta boast the best two NFC offensive lines that don't have a star on their helmets.
No. 1 Dallas Cowboys: Pass Defense
The dominant run game keeps opposing offenses off the field for big swaths of time — the Cowboys defense saw the second-fewest minutes of field time in the league — but when it was out there, it was vulnerable through the air. Dallas surrendered 4,167 passing yards (26th in the league) and 25 pass touchdowns (tied for 17th) despite registering just 166 defensive series, the fourth fewest in the league. On the season, the Cowboys gave up a 94.1 rating to opposing quarterbacks (24th).
So BTB, which is the Cowboys biggest weakness going into the playoffs? The Cowboys passing offense versus elite defenses, or the Cowboys pass defense with its still suspect defensive line? Vote in the poll and hit the comments.