While the chances for the Dallas Cowboys to make the playoffs have not completely disappeared, they would have to somehow leapfrog four teams just to get into the last wildcard spot (Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers, in order). Not just their record, but the tiebreakers put Dallas at a real disadvantage.
Despite four games in which the Cowboys were thoroughly outclassed, there were two games that they not only could have won, but arguably should have won against the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams. Had they managed to hang onto late leads in those games, they would currently be no worse than the sixth seed for the NFC. While home field advantage is sought after in the playoffs, the real key is getting into them, because once you do, you always have a chance to go all the way (see: New York Giants). That is especially true if a team is getting hot.
And as the season winds down, the Cowboys may be one of those teams that is peaking at just the right time, if they can only find a way to beat the odds and squeeze in. They would have to run the table the rest of the way, but there are a lot of reasons why that may not be very hard to do.
A lot of focus has been placed on the return of Ezekiel Elliott from suspension. He is certainly a big part of the offense and may give the team a real boost, but he is only part of the story. While things fell apart during the first three games he was absent, Dallas turned things around in the two recent wins, even if those were against somewhat lesser competition. Still, it does appear that they have figured out how to make their offense work with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith. Instead of being the only hope, Elliott now looks to be more of an upgrade. That comes with the obvious “if” as to his being in shape and with his head straight after a prolonged vacation, reportedly in Mexico, but if he hasn’t made significant errors there, then he should be ready to roll. He is at least eager to prove himself, based on the bet Eric Dickerson talked about making with him on Elliott getting 200 yards in his return game against the Seattle Seahawks.
But so much else has gone on. First is the health of the team. When Elliott started his suspension, it happened to coincide with injury issues of varying degree for Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Orlando Scandrick, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin. Lee’s absence was the most obviously detrimental, although again the team seemed to figure out how to get by without him in the Washington win. The others may have been less crucial but still had a cumulative impact. Additionally, the rookie defensive backs, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods, all were slowed in developing as NFL players by earlier injuries.
Now, the lingering concussion problem for David Irving and Scandrick’s back injury may be the only ones to have much of an effect, and neither have been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders. There is a big if here as well on Dallas avoiding further injury, but at the moment, they are in very good health, especially when compared to so many other teams in the league.
And as mentioned, the trio of rookie DBs is finally together on the field, and the early reports are certainly encouraging. All three had an excellent game against the Giants and Eli Manning. The major overhaul of the secondary seems to be finally coming together. Anthony Brown seems better suited to a backup role, the staff is figuring out how to best utilize Byron Jones, and even Jeff Heath put in a very good day at the office last week, grabbing his team-leading third interception while providing generally good coverage and run support. The Cowboys made a big gamble on letting four veteran DBs go last offseason. It took a while, and may have cost the team earlier in the season, but at least from a talent standpoint, they look to have gotten it right.
The rest of the defense is also gelling. When Lee and Hitchens are both able to go, Dallas boasts one of the most productive linebacking units around. And as the season has progressed, Jaylon Smith has also started to show more and more. Like the young defensive backs, he is doing a better and better job, and playing fewer snaps with Lee back is benefiting him. At the same time, his improved play allowed the team to rest Lee during the last game, which never used to happen. Fewer snaps may mean more healthy games for the no-longer-young General.
With the impressive start to the season, NFL sack leader Demarcus Lawrence has spearheaded a seriously rejuvenated pass rush, despite the still-puzzling reluctance of NFL officials to call obvious holding against him and the rest of the defensive line. If Irving does get back soon, the pressure on opposing quarterbacks will just ratchet back up.
Similar to how the secondary has begun to perform the way the team envisioned before the season, the offensive line has also started to look like its once dominant self the past couple of games. It of course had to go through its own fairly extensive remodel at left guard and right tackle. La’el Collins is just one more player that is putting his best games on the field late in the season, making the future at RT look quite bright. It was a bit harder to get LG worked out, and that is largely because of the frustrating insistence the staff had on forcing Chaz Green into the starting job. His injury early in the season turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it put Jonathan Cooper into the lineup, where he probably should have been all along. Cooper is still the weakest link on the line, but he has been good enough to make things work when Smith is healthy. With the All Pro tackle on one side and fellow All Pro center Travis Frederick on the other, Cooper does not have to be great. Adequate is all the team needs, and he is looking to be a bit more than just that.
Finally, but not to be underestimated, Dak Prescott has shown convincing signs that he is over the strange funk that affected him the first three games Elliott missed. He put up career-best numbers against the Giants, aided in no small part by his receivers finally getting some huge yards after the catch on short throws. Prescott is not a deep-threat thrower, but a controlled and cautious passer within the Dallas scheme, and he brings the ability to make things happen with his legs and size as a ball carrier as well. In light of the rash of quarterback injuries this year, most recently to MVP candidate Carson Wentz (yes, he plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was having a simply outstanding sophomore year), the team has to be careful about relying too much on Prescott’s ability to run. But it is a constant threat that other teams have to account for. And that just opens up the opportunities for the Cowboys’ offense.
The Cowboys are peaking at what should be the perfect time. But the early struggles this year may simply be too much to overcome. And that is a real shame, because the team is starting to look like it could be very dangerous in the playoffs, even with having to play all the games on the road. Given that AT&T Stadium has not exactly been much of a home field advantage for them, that would not be all that bad a thing. Sadly, it just may not matter, and the odds are that the Cowboys will be the best team sitting at home once the playoffs begin.