Some may argue that if you could pick two or three games for the Cowboys to drop over the rest of the year this might be one of the ones you’d pick. It’s an AFC team, there are no potential wild card tiebreakers at stake down the line like there would be against say, Atlanta or Seattle, and of course there are no divisional tiebreaker implications as far as head-to-head against Philadelphia, or overall division record. If you told me right now that Dallas would finish the year 10-6, this would almost certainly be one of the top two games, along with the Chargers, that I’d want them to lose.
But that is all extreme projecting. In reality this may be the last time the Cowboys have Ezekiel Elliott on the field until late December. Dallas is only two games behind the Eagles in the loss column with both games against them still on the schedule, but Philadelphia has a relatively weak slate the rest of the way, and of course there is the aforementioned Elliott situation. The Cowboys are right there in the wild card but there is a jumble of teams, including Atlanta, Seattle, Carolina, and the Rams, the last one a team who Dallas has already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker against. Many of these teams will beat each other up over the rest of the year but there is a very distinct possibility that the Cowboys will need 10 wins to make it in just as a wild card, let alone as a division winner, and even then it could come down to a tiebreaker.
If Elliott is indeed lost for the next six games you won’t see him again until the second to last game of the year, at which point it’s possible, if not likely, that Dallas will need to win both games in order to have a chance.
What may be more important than all of that though is the memory of the last two games played at AT&T Stadium where the Cowboys had double digit leads in both and ended up collapsing down the stretch. Sean Lee wasn’t available for those two, while Anthony Hitchens and David Irving were only making their debuts in the second of the two matchups, but the fact remains that the last memories anybody has of playing at home are of the defense imploding and giving away two very winnable games.
All of that brings me to today’s matchup where the Kansas City Chiefs will bring perhaps the most dynamic, versatile offense in the league to the table. Travis Kelce leads the league in receiving yards for a tight end, and ranks sixth overall, while his teammate Tyreek Hill is right behind him at seventh in the league. Hill is perhaps the fastest player in the league and almost certainly its most dangerous return man.
And if all of that wasn’t enough running back Kareem Hunt leads the league in rushing yards with 763 and quarterback Alex Smith is tied for third in the league in both completion percentage (69.1%) and touchdowns (16), to go along with a grand total of zero interceptions. Oh, and he’s also a threat on the ground too with 154 rushing yards, only 14 less than Dak Prescott on the year.
There is one caveat that must be mentioned, and that’s that the Chiefs have played eight games without having their bye while about half of the league has only played seven, so naturally the raw statistical totals may be a bit inflated, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that this is clearly a top 10, perhaps top 5 offense in the league and the Cowboys defense will have their hands full.
It’s not all bad news though as the Chiefs defense should be just as concerned with the Cowboys offense as the Cowboys defense is worried about their offense. Their run defense ranks fifth from the bottom, sandwiched between two recent Cowboys opponents in the Packers and 49ers. Of course the Cowboys rolled up over 400 combined rushing yards in those two games, so that should tell you something. Not only that, but they’re also in the bottom five in passing yards allowed, and actually give up just about as many points per game as the Cowboys.
This is all exacerbated by the fact that Dee Ford, the bookend to Justin Houston, will miss the game, although veteran Tamba Hali may end up making his season debut after missing the past couple months. Either way, the Cowboys offense should be able to move the ball with relative ease and hopefully play keep-away from the Chiefs offense.
With that said, when the defense is on the field they must play extremely disciplined, assignment-sound football. The Chiefs love mixing and matching personnel packages, exotic formations, and a variety of misdirection and run/pass options (RPO’s). There is an argument to be made that the Chiefs have the most creative offense in the league, although there are some slight holes the Cowboys may be able to exploit.
Number two receiver Albert Wilson is out today, and combined with an earlier injury to Chris Conley, the Chiefs will have to roll with Demarcus Robinson and his 115 receiving yards on the season opposite Hill. Kareem Hunt is also not especially adept as a pass-protector, so when he is taken out it could be a tip that they will be passing the ball, and when he is in expect him to be used as a receiver out of the backfield, not as a blocker.
These aren’t major weaknesses of course but they are areas that the defense may be able to exploit situationally in a game where an extra stop here and there could be the difference between two excellent offenses and two middling defenses.
All indications point to this game being a shootout, and we can talk as much as we want about schematic adjustments, personnel matchups, and so forth, but at the end of the day what so often will end up being the difference between two good teams are penalties and turnovers. Remember the Ryan Switzer fumble against the Rams and the ball that hit Terrance Williams in the hands, bounced softly to a Packers defender, and was returned for a touchdown?
Those two plays swung those games in the Rams and Packers favor. We can talk all day about Sean Lee and whether or not the Cowboys would’ve won those two with him, but ultimately it was those types of plays that made the difference. If Switzer doesn’t botch that punt return or if Williams could actually catch with his hands the Cowboys might very well be 6-1 right now.
So in a game where the offenses probably won’t face much resistance, similar to those other two matchups, it will likely be a crucial turnover or untimely penalty that makes the difference. With that in mind, Prescott and the Cowboys receivers must be weary of Marcus Peters, the playmaking corner whose presence seems to be a magnet for the ball as he has piled up 17 interceptions and three touchdowns only halfway through his third season.
And those critical, even if sometimes very questionable holding penalties that killed so many drives and took points off the board against the Redskins last week?
You can’t have those today.
Ultimately I feel like this game will rest on a very thin margin, and it could easily go down to the final drive just like those Rams and Packers games. Some may argue in the grand scheme of things that the importance of this game pales in comparison to the battles to come, and they may be right, but it is undeniable that this game is a measuring stick for the Cowboys. This isn’t the 49ers or the banged up Redskins, it’s not the Cardinals, it’s one of the better offenses, and maybe overall teams in the league. A convincing performance here could help propel the team through November and December, whether Elliott misses six games or not. After a couple of strong performances on the road and the Chiefs coming off a short week I lean ever so slightly to the Cowboys, 30-26.