The regular season is a done deal for the Dallas Cowboys. While many games in week 17 have a real impact on some teams making the playoffs and a lot of seeding, the game against the New York Giants has no true impact on what the Cowboys do in January.
It was a real roller-coaster of a ride for fans and the team. But it ended up with Dallas atop the NFC East and in the fourth seed. They enter the playoffs as a flawed team, but they are hardly alone in that. Probably having just one home game in all likelihood makes things difficult, but hardly impossible. So here are some things to consider about just what their chances are.
A home game is a big plus for the start
They will have to go on the road and succeed if they can win that wild card game, but after many years of playing better away from AT&T Stadium, they had a real home-field advantage in 2018. They were 7-1, with only the loss to the Tennessee Titans immediately after the Amari Cooper trade and the dismissal of Paul Alexander marring things.
They will most likely play the Seattle Seahawks, with the Minnesota Vikings as the only other possibility. Seattle, of course, beat Dallas during the regular season. That was before the big comeback, and in their house. This is a different Cowboys team now, and things will be rocking in Arlington.
It will take a hot streak - and they have shown they can do those
Confidence is crucial in the postseason. That is one thing that the Cowboys built during the five-game winning streak that resurrected their season. They have won games in a variety of ways, mostly founded on that defense.
The one thing that must be avoided going forward is falling behind early because Dallas simply has not done well in those situations. They have to keep it close at a minimum and do much better when they can build an early lead. They unfortunately tend to lean on that a bit too much, but that is where the vastly improved defense has been so crucial. Once the Cowboys get up on the scoreboard, the defense makes it so hard for other teams to come back. They often get close, but so far, they usually can’t overcome things.
And there is certainly precedent for a flawed team to go all the way. One Eli Manning has a shot at the Hall of Fame because he and his team got hot at the right time on a couple of occasions.
The red zone
All season, the Cowboys have struggled in the red zone. They did see a glimmer of hope against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they came away with 17 points on three trips inside the 20, but that was against the hands-down worst red zone defense in the league.
How the Cowboys handle things in the zone will likely determine how the postseason goes for them. They have had issues with both execution and play-calling. Both have to be better.
It is a simple fact that the quarterback is the most crucial player on the field in the NFL. He handles the ball on just about every play. Dak Prescott has his job cut out for him.
He is not the perfect quarterback, but he is the unquestioned leader of this offense. It is up to the staff, particularly often-criticized offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, to utilize his strengths and work around his liabilities. Prescott is good at protecting the ball as a passer, but has shown an unfortunate tendency to lose the handle at times when trying to evade the pass rush. His pocket awareness and movement continue to be a problem. But he is one of the best runners at the position in the league. The problem there is that this simply disappears from the game plan at times, which seems a poor decision.
One other plus that Prescott seems to bring to the table is that he plays his best when the score is close. Some of that may be the way Linehan is calling the game, but for whatever reason Prescott becomes more accurate and makes better decisions when things are within a single score.
If Dallas sees much more good Dak than bad, then they have a real chance against anyone.
Ezekiel Elliott has already had 381 touches this season. He is the focal point of the Cowboys’ offensive approach. He is going to get a lot more in every postseason game.
So far, he has held up, but there is always a worry about him running a bit low on gas. (He is not going to go empty, but every player in the NFL starts to feel it late in the season.) Teams wisely key on limiting Elliott in their defensive plans. Dallas needs him to remain effective in every game.
There still has to be a willingness to adjust if things bog down in the running game. That has not always happened under Linehan. If Zeke can continue to eat in January, the team’s chances go up. If not, well, then it is on Dak’s shoulders.
The Cooper effect needs to be strong again
The addition of Amari Cooper was huge in the winning streak, but the last two games have been a different story. Both the Indianapolis Colts and the Buccaneers seemed to do a much better job of taking him out of the game plan, and the Cowboys didn’t seem to have an effective way to counter. Michael Gallup took up the slack against Tampa Bay, but Cooper can be such a potent weapon if they can get the balls in his hands. Of course, he also helps open things up for the other receivers, so there is more than one way to use him. He just needs to be a factor one way or the other - and preferably both.
No defensive letdown
In a sense, there was a bit of one against Tampa Bay, as the Bucs moved up and down the field. But some big defensive plays neutralized that.
The Cowboys need both more consistency in stopping the opponent and a continuation of the takeaways and stiffening in the red zone. The good news is that there can be no question that this defense is legitimate. Given the natural honing process that comes in the playoffs, they have to remain so. The quarterbacks and offenses they face from here on out are likely to just get better as things hopefully go along.
The great bugaboo of this time of year. Injuries are random and can be devastating.
The good news here is that the Cowboys look to be getting better, not worse. Zack Martin has already been reported as out for the season finale to heal more. Tyron Smith, despite getting flagged again, looked to be playing more like his old self last game. Tyrone Crawford came out of his injury scare with no apparent real damage but would also be expected to sit out. Anthony Brown likewise will get some kid glove treatment. And both Tavon Austin and Sean Lee might see action this week to get tuned up for the postseason.
Now they just have to get out of New Jersey without any more significant injuries.
The most important job of the head coach has already been done. He kept this team positive and didn’t allow them to lose faith during the 3-5 start to the season. This roster has demonstrated a real belief in their head coach. Now he has to keep them focused on the task ahead and playing well. He needs to prove his team can find that elusive postseason success. His job is no longer in question, but his legacy may be shaped a great deal in the next month.
Putting it all together
It’s a good news/bad news things. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. The Cowboys need to get most of them right. But they don’t have to get ALL of them right every game. They have won when the defense became an immovable object. They have won when Elliott put them on his shoulders. They have won when Prescott had an excellent outing. They have won when Cooper just shredded the defense.
Get most things right, and shortcomings can be overcome. They just have to limit the latter and accumulate the former.
Dallas has long odds of going all the way. But they have already overcome huge odds just to make it this far.
If you want a prediction, the most likely outcome would be to win the wild card game, then fall in the divisional round. While that would still be disappointing, it would be a measure of success the team has not had since 2014. And, as has been pointed out, there is no Aaron Freaking Rodgers lurking out there to crush their souls this year.
We will see. And let’s wrap things up on a positive note. The Cowboys are most certainly talking playoffs, and in just a few days, 20 NFL teams will be left with free agency targets, draft prospects, and coaching changes to focus on.
It’s a good thing.