The term “must-win” is thrown around a lot in sports, often unnecessarily. In the strictest sense of the term a game shouldn’t be a “must-win” unless a loss would result in elimination from the playoffs, a tournament, or whatever the competition may be. Most of us who watch football have a relatively good sense of what games are “must-win” depending on the opponent, what’s going on in the division or conference, and of course what is going on with the team that we all root for.
Today is one of those games for the Cowboys. Some may have thought it was the Rams a few weeks ago or the Packers after that, but today is different. The Rams and Packers, with Aaron Rodgers of course, are two of the better teams in the NFC with two of the better offenses in the conference. Sean Lee was missing, as were a few other critical pieces like Anthony Hitchens and David Irving against the Rams. But the 49ers are a different conversation all together.
They are led by a rookie making his first career start in CJ Beathard, and despite an impressive performance against the Redskins last week when he came on in relief of Brian Hoyer, he isn’t exactly an impressive overall prospect. He was more of a game manager at Iowa and I’d imagine that a good amount of his success last week came thanks to the Redskins being caught off guard with him coming into the game.
The Cowboys won’t be surprised and won’t be forced to tweak whatever defensive gameplan they had in place coming into the contest, like the Redskins presumably had to.
The Cowboys will have to face some grizzled veterans with the likes of Pierre Garcon, Joe Staley, and Eric Reid, and some bright young players like DeForest Buckner, Rueben Foster, Solomon Thomas, and Trenton Brown, but for the most part there is a reason the 49ers are 0-6. Sure, they’ve lost several close games, but if you look closer you’ll see that they were down big in most of those games and managed to make it competitive later on.
Against the Redskins they were down 17-0 late in the first half, against the Colts, a very poor team in their own right, they were down 16-6 going into the fourth quarter, and against the Rams they were down double digits at several points throughout the game, including late in the fourth quarter. They played defensive slugfests against the Cardinals and Seahawks where they only lost by three in each game, but in each of those contests all of their points came off field goals.
What I’m getting at here is that the 49ers are an NFL team with a couple of very good players that must be respected and not taken for granted, but they are also a very limited team that has consistently allowed teams to jump out to double-digit leads and struggled to score touchdowns.
And that brings me to the Cowboys.
We all know what happened against the Rams and Packers, we all know how the defense has played, and we all know what Sean Lee’s return means to the team. Coming off a bye with extra rest and an extra week to prepare there is no excuse for the Cowboys to not come out and control this game. There are no more excuses as far as Lee, Hitchens, Irving, or whoever being unavailable.
Chidobe Awuzie will be the only notable absence but he isn’t exactly a critical piece to the defense yet like the trio listed above. On the flip side the 49ers will be missing one of their best defensive players in Arik Armstead and utility back Kyle Juszczyk.
There are ways the Cowboys can lose this game. One way of course would be penalties and turnovers, which will lose you any NFL game. Schematically the 49ers could take advantage of the Cowboys left guard situation with DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas on defense, and offensively they could potentially play keep-away with Carlos Hyde and a ball-control short passing attack, but overall the 49ers don’t pose many significant threats with their personnel.
Ultimately, assuming the Cowboys don’t kill themselves with turnovers and penalties, it’ll come down to whether or not they are able to execute. There is absolutely no reason that Dak Prescott and the receivers can’t take advantage of the 26th-ranked pass defense through the air. There is absolutely no reason that Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line can’t find space against the 18th-ranked run defense. It may not always be pretty but they should have at least decent success.
Conversely, the defense, now with Sean Lee, and hopefully a chip on their shoulder after two pathetic performances, should be able to contain an offense that ranks 20th in the league through the air and 23rd on the ground. An offense led by a rookie quarterback in his first start no less.
The Cowboys obviously are not in an ideal position to make the playoffs or contend for the division at 2-3, but if you take a look at the standings it may not be quite as dire as it feels. Of course the expectations coming into the season are one of the main reasons that so many Cowboys faithful feel that the season may already be lost, but in reality the team is only one game in the loss column out of the wild card, and two games in the loss column behind the Eagles, with two matchups (and a potential divisional tiebreaker) remaining.
Win today and the Cowboys are right there in the thick of the wild card hunt, and if they can manage to win two out of the next three (at Washington, vs. Kansas City, and at Atlanta) they could put a good deal of pressure on the Eagles going into a potential showdown in Dallas. Realistically, their chances at the division don’t look great, but if they can stay within striking distance it could simply come down to whether or not they can beat the Eagles in their two head-to-head matchups.
But it must start today, in what is arguably the easiest game remaining on the Cowboys schedule. If they aren’t able to come through with an inspired performance after two humiliating defeats, coming off a bye, and against a rookie quarterback, well, it may be time to start talking draft position. And the questions and concerns over the coaching staff will only continue to ring louder and truer.
Ultimately, I’m going to choose to keep a level of faith in the coaching staff and believe the Cowboys talent will win out in this one, but it will be closer than many expect. Cowboys win, 24-20.