The Cowboys home playoff tilt will soon be upon us (yay!). Let’s look at the keys to a victory for the good guys. Obviously, scoring more points than the opponent is the best and simplest way to victory, but to reach that goal? Well, winning the turnover battle is always a good start, as there’s a strong correlation between that and victory on the scoreboard.
But what are the more subtle things Dallas can do to insure the team advances and keep the 2018 season going?
Get an early lead
We outlined earlier how during the Cowboys’ five game win streak they rarely faced a deficit and played most of those games with a lead. The Cowboys’ formula for success works much more efficiently when the team has a lead; further, the team isn’t well-equipped to come from behind. Thus, the Cowboys are going to need to continue a trend they’ve enjoyed throughout the season: outscoring the opponent in the first quarter.
Dallas (15th) and Seattle (12th) rank about the same in points scored in the first quarter of games (4.8 and 4.9 respectively). Dallas, however, is the stingiest team in the NFL at allowing first quarter points, surrendering only 1.5 points per game. Seattle ranks 14th, giving up 4.4 points per game.
Just as Dallas wants to “stay ahead of the sticks” (not fall into long down-and-distance situations) they’ll want to “stay ahead of the scoreboard” as well. This will allow them to keep running the ball aggressively, keep the Seattle defense honest and play a balanced offensive game. On defense, a lead allows the Cowboys defensive line to play more aggressively. Perhaps more importantly, data shows that teams playing from behind simply make more turnovers than teams playing in a tie game or with a lead.
Win the red zone battle
We all know Dallas has not executed well in the red zone. They rank 29th overall, converting only 48% of red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Seattle, by contrast, ranks 8th scoring touchdowns on 65% of RZ opportunities. Defensively, both teams rank in the top seven of the league (Dallas 7th at 51% and Seattle 4th at 49%).
In short, Dallas is going to have to flip the script in this area if they want to succeed. There’s three three keys for the team’s success in the red zone:
- Execute – too often the team simply hasn’t done the simple things. Dropped passes. Penalties. Blown assignments. Precise execution is the simplest means to red zone success.
- Utilize the tight end – nowhere has Dak Prescott missed Dez Bryant and Jason Witten more than near the goal line. Tight ends become viable targets in the cramped quarters near the goal line. Fortunately both Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz have been allowed entry into the circle of trust late in the season and give Prescott viable red zone options. Noah Brown also seems like a sneaky option that might prove fruitful in the scoring area.
- Use Dak Prescott’s legs – no quarterback has more rushing touchdowns the last three seasons than Dak Prescott. He’s a legitimate scoring threat running the ball, especially inside the five-yard line. Dallas hasn’t used him aggressively in such situations but should. The Carolina Panthers make no effort to hide how they use Cam Newton in such situations and it’s been effective for them; Dallas should do the same with Prescott.
Win the quarterback battle
Speaking of Prescott, he’s simply going to have to be better than Russell Wilson. That’s no easy feat as Wilson has quietly put up his best season, throwing for career-highs in touchdowns, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and passer rating. He’s also battle-tested, having played in twelve playoff games, winning eight of them. But Wilson will turn the ball over, having thrown eight interceptions in his last seven post-season games.
Dak, as we know, has only one playoff game under his belt. But what a game it was. He threw for 300+ yards, three touchdowns and put up a 103 passer rating in the team’s 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2016. He also ran for a two-point conversion in a game where he led the team back from an 18-point deficit (only to have the defense come up short in the end).
Dak has also proven to raise his game when the stakes are high, compiling an elite passer rating in close games. Saturday night’s outcome could very well come down to which quarterback is able to make a big play out of nothing, something both have proven adept at over their careers.
Slow the Seattle rushing game
Again, this is easier said than done. But the simplest way to disrupt the Seahawks offensive plan is to slow their league-leading rushing attack. Seattle has averaged 173 yards rushing since week three, when they racked up 113 yards against the Cowboys. Dallas ranks 5th in the league in rushing yards allowed and 4th in yards per carry. The Cowboys must limit the number of explosive runs (those of 10+ yards), something the Seahawks have been able to do against virtually every team.
If the Seahawks run for 140+ yards Dallas has almost no shot of winning this game. In fact, the Cowboys defense is likely going to have to limit the Seattle ground game to 110 yards or less, something only one team (Carolina) has done since week two.
If Dallas can manage to do at least three of the four above, they should have a high chance of winning and giving Cowboys’ fans only their third playoff victory since 1996.