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Five things to watch when the Cowboys face the Raiders on Sunday night

Can the Cowboys keep their playoff hopes alive with a win against Oakland?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When this schedule came out, this was one of the match-ups many of us circled on our calendars. Both the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders had a great season in 2016 led by a great year from their young quarterback. But this season hasn’t been so kind. Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives and are facing a must-win if their season is to continue to have meaning. It should be an exciting game that will be another ratings success for NBC. Here are the five things I will be looking for in this game.

1. Would it kill them to have a fast start?

The Cowboys were sitting at 5-3 when Ezekiel Elliott started serving his six-game suspension and still in great shape for a playoff run. But bright skies turned to darkness real quick as they were routed in the first three games he missed. There have been a few different reasons for the Cowboys struggles during this time ranging from Zeke being out to the defensive collapse in the second half. Well, one of these issues has been corrected. In fact, the routs have continued only the Cowboys on the ones doing the routing. But despite the change in outcome, there is still one common element in all of these games - the Cowboys offense has been struggling early.

Dallas has been finishing strong in recent games. In each of the last three contests, they’ve scored more points in the fourth quarter than they scored in the previous three quarters combined. That is great and all when it comes to finishing a game, but what about doing something a little sooner?

Even though the last five games have ended up in 20+ blowouts, all of these games have been close at halftime.

Even their highest scoring first-half against the Redskins a couple weeks ago was aided by a punt return touchdown by Ryan Switzer. During this stretch, the Cowboys offense is only averaging 7.2 points in the first half.

The Cowboys are playing for their playoff lives. They cannot afford to lollygag and get caught up in a close game where the outcome could be decided by a bad bounce or poor call by referee Gene Steratore (who will be working his first Cowboys game since the Dez catch/no-catch fiasco).

This offense needs to strike fast. That means they have to cut back on the drop passes and silly negative plays that puts the offense behind the chains. Fortunately, there will be no sun to deal with and the offensive line looks back to form after dealing with some injury issues. So now they need to make it count and make it count early.

2. La’el vs. Khalil

One of the most unsung stories of the season is just how well things have gone this season at right tackle. The often criticized, but consistently mediocre, Doug Free retired this offseason and as soon as that happened, many fans immediately started complaining about how much we’d miss him. Well, we don’t.

The Cowboys moved La’el Collins over to right tackle to fill the void and the third-year offensive lineman has played extremely well. The first thing that nobody seems to be talking about is that Collins is not a penalty machine like Free was.

Sure, there are still three games left to play, but it’s safe to say that this is one area that has greatly improved at the position. While limiting mistakes are great, the high level of play the team is getting from Collins is clearly superior. And what makes it even more impressive is how he is doing that against some strong pass rushers this season.

Remember when people were really worried about these tough match-ups throughout the season? Well, that’s a distant memory now as Collins as done a great job holding his own.

But as well as Collins has done against some strong opponents, he now faces one of the games premier pass rushers in Khalil Mack. The Raiders star edge rusher has a relentless energy that will challenge Collins for four quarters. He gets off the line of scrimmage fast and has great bend to get around the blockers. In the preseason, Mack gave Collins fits with his hand placement, causing La’el to get called for some penalties so the young tackle is going to have to be disciplined in his technique against this savvy pass rusher.

3. Holding Tank

It may sound strange to say, but the most effective pass rusher on the field Sunday night may not be #52 on the Raiders, but rather #90 on the Cowboys. Now, Mack has been a double-digit sack guy for the last two seasons and is 1.5 sacks away from doing it again this year so I don’t want to act like he’s not an elite player, but the performance of DeMarcus Lawrence this season has been remarkable. And what makes matters even better is the matchup.

The Raiders have a big offensive line and it’s going to be a daunting task for the Cowboys unit to win battles in the trenches. But Oakland has a weak link on their line and as luck would have it, he plays right tackle. Seven-year veteran, Marshall Newhouse, will be assigned to block Lawrence and he is going to have his hands full. Newhouse is slow off the snap and this should allow Lawrence to get around the edge. Tank’s inside-out attacks is going to keep Newhouse off balance.

By now many of you have heard how the Cowboys are getting no love when it comes to holding penalties being called on their opponent. They are last in the league in that department. Lawrence, who has terrorized quarterbacks this season, hasn’t seen a holding penalty called against him in the last five weeks. He recently expressed his frustration with the refs. But could this be the day that Tank finally draws a flag?

4. Beastmode

The addition of running back Marshawn Lynch to the backfield hasn’t bolstered the Raiders running game as much as they’d hope. The Raiders rushing attack churned out an impressive 116 yards per game (ranked 6th) in 2016. They now sit at 91 yards per game (27th) this season. In his last four full seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Lynch was putting up 1,200+ yards every year. He only has 619 yards on the season this year, which is still 164 yards less than Ezekiel Elliott has, despite Zeke only playing half a season. Needless to say, Beastmode has been set to quiet mode this year.

Despite the low yardage totals, the Raiders will use Lynch to pound away. He has five touchdowns over the last five games. He’s also had a couple big runs recently as he has demonstrated that bringing him down still isn’t an easy thing to do. He’s a power runner and will be looking to bring the hurt against the Cowboys.

If I’m the coaches for the Cowboys defense, I would be emphasizing to Sean Lee to be careful about how he attacks Lynch. Lee is such a missile defender and will lunge himself into the ball carrier. He has no fear. But neither does Lynch and that together could equal some dangerous collisions. Lee has missed too much time already with a hamstring injury and it would be unfortunate if he left the game in the concussion protocol.

5. Can the defense stay on a roll?

While both teams will look to establish the run, success will still depend on the arms of the quarterbacks. Oakland will look to attack the Cowboys young defensive backs that have recently taken over the secondary. The defense has gone through a major overhaul in the secondary which had fans upset early on, but now have many of us excited. In fact, despite the issues early and a 400+ yards shredding by Philip Rivers on Thanksgiving, the play of this younger secondary group has been outstanding. They have already demonstrated they can match last year’s efficiency and it’s only going to get better (stats courtesy of TeamRankings)

The defense is starting to put it all together with a healthy pass rush, run-stopping linebacker play, and finally corners who can make plays on the ball and not give up the big plays. People want to talk about how Zeke being on the field is so connected to the team’s success, but I can’t recall seeing such a direct correlation between yards allowed and winning this late into the season.

Those are the things I will be watching for on Sunday night. How about you? Can the Cowboys keep this mini-win streak going?

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