It is a heady moment for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans. Barring a complete collapse down the stretch and either Philadelphia or Washington winning out with their shaky-to-horrible quarterback situations, Dallas is going to the playoffs as the NFC East champs. And they look to be dangerous with a five-game win streak, a defense that is often suffocating, and an offense that roared to life late in the latest victory over the Eagles.
But there is a potential problem. Outside of the stunning defeat of the New Orleans Saints, who have already clinched the NFC South and should soon lock up a first round bye, the Cowboys haven’t beaten any team with a winning record this year. None. As a matter of fact, of the teams they have played so far, only the Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, and Tennessee Titans have winning records at this stage of the season. And Dallas lost to all of them.
It is certainly good to be on the cusp of winning the division. It is nice to have ways to back into the crown even if they slip up in the final three games. But you have to worry about the lack of success against real contenders, especially since those Seahawks look to be the most likely opponent for the Cowboys in the wild-card round, albeit at AT&T Stadium, which has finally become a real home-field advantage this season.
Beating a bunch of weak teams, especially by close scores game after game, is not a good sign for the postseason, where the grind of the regular season has winnowed those kinds of opponents out. A measure of caution must be taken as we look ahead. Getting to the playoffs after starting the season 3-5 is a significant accomplishment, especially with that one skin on the wall. But a one-and-done would leave a very bitter taste indeed, especially if it came against Seattle, a team that has ruined the postseason for Dallas before.
It was not thought to be this way at the start of the year, given that the Cowboys had to face the defending Super Bowl champions twice, plus five other 2017 playoff teams in the Jaguars, Titans, Falcons, Saints, and Panthers, as well as two other teams that finished above .500 last year in the Seahawks and Lions. But five of those former playoff teams would not make the tournament if the season ended today. Admittedly, the Eagles and Washington would have winning records now if not for their losses to the Cowboys - but the fact remains that seven of the eight wins this season have come against teams that are literally losers.
It should be no surprise that the schedule turned out to be much easier than it looked back in September. Strength of schedule predictions before the games are actually played are notoriously meaningless in a league where roughly half the playoff teams from each year fail to return the next (the current standings have a 50% turnover, right on schedule).
This is a real danger sign for Dallas, who are still a flawed team despite the recent surge. Those victories have not been overpowering ones, none of them by more than eight points, with two by only a field goal, and of course it took overtime to drive a stake into the Eagles. Conversely, it must be mentioned that the Cowboys have only lost one game by more than one possession, the 14-point loss to the Titans. They were on the winning end of the only true blowout all year, the 40-7 crushing of the Jaguars that seemed to break the previous year’s AFC Championship loser.
Close games are too much of a 50-50 proposition in the NFL, however, with games often being decided on a lucky bounce, a single big play, or even a bad call by the officials, who seem to be making an awful lot of those of late. What the Cowboys have not done since that win over Jacksonville is show that they can play a truly dominant game on both sides of the ball for a full sixty minutes. It took some real heroics and a little help from those aforementioned zebras to pull of the last win.
Now the Cowboy face their last game against a team with a winning record this season, the Indianapolis Colts. And they are a very dangerous opponent that Dallas has to face on the road, which has been more difficult this year. Indy is fighting to climb into a wild card spot, and they have also had a remarkable comeback this season, getting to 7-6 after starting the season 1-5. Like the Cowboys, they used a five-game winning streak to get back on track. Andrew Luck has long been a superb quarterback held back by a lack of support from the rest of the team and injuries, but now they are finding ways to win again. The Cowboys are the underdog in this game, which is certainly not an unusual spot for them.
To beat a team that is fighting for its playoff life (again) Dallas needs to get a complete performance from all three phases of the game and not depend on one unit or another to overcome the self-inflicted issues that have cropped up repeatedly of late. No sluggish starts, no turnovers lost, taking the ball away, doing significantly better in the red zone, not fading defensively down the stretch, getting some halfway decent field position from the special teams, limiting penalties - this is just a partial list of things the team needs to do. Last-minute heroics to stop a potent offense or put up a flurry of points late are exciting, but it would be nice to have a game that doesn’t threaten to give us all a heart attack. And we certainly don’t want to see the Cowboys get clearly outclassed, or barely edged, for that matter.
It is not time to let up. It is time to show something more. This team has had grit and determination by the ton over the past five weeks, but now they need to bring consistency and execution to the table. The Colts are arguably one of their top three or four challenges this season. This game can tell us a lot about just how real Dallas’ chances are to make a run in the playoffs, because the schedule so far just hasn’t.