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Hot topic: Cowboys’ playoff chances rising

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A win, and an Eagles loss, have things looking up.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions
Soaring like Michael Gallup.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

As fans of the Dallas Cowboys, our spirits tend to rise and fall abruptly. We were down in the dumps after the loss to the Minnesota Vikings, but things suddenly look much better after the win over the Detroit Lions. With the Philadelphia Eagles losing to the New England Patriots later in the day, the likelihood of the Cowboys making the playoffs took a real jump. The most probable path to the playoffs at this point is obviously to win the NFC East. That is now a bit easier, although challenges, like those Patriots this week, remain.

With only six weeks left in the regular season, the contenders are starting to separate from the pretenders in the NFC. ESPN has an article from Bill Barnwell up outlining the chances for the eight teams they see as still being in the race for the six postseason berths. The team section for the Cowboys starts with some odds:

Chance to make the playoffs: 71%

If the season ended today: 4-seed, vs. Seahawks

That ain’t too bad for a team that has had real struggles at times, including in the latest win. As Barnwell notes, it all hinges on a recent change in how they do business when they have the ball.

It’s time to stop pretending that the Cowboys run their offense through Ezekiel Elliott or that Prescott needs his star running back to create throwing opportunities. This is Dak’s offense, and the Cowboys are a better team for it.

It is hardly unusual for an NFL team’s fortunes to ride on their quarterback. While he has a very good supporting cast that took a real step toward being elite against Detroit, Dak Prescott is the man in Dallas. That has been true to a degree ever since he came into the league and outperformed his draft position to a ridiculous degree. But, as Barnwell also noted, up until quite recently, the identity of the Cowboys was Elliott. They centered their offense around him. Opposing teams have taken the approach of stopping him and forcing Prescott to beat them.

What went overlooked was just how often he did that, outside of the bad stretch from the beating he took from the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 until the addition of Amari Cooper to right the ship at wide receiver in the middle of the 2018 season. Many observers and fans of the team, including most if not all of the writers here at BTB, were clamoring for the team to quit trying to play 1990s football and use what they have in Prescott and a now-strong receiving corps. Yet “establish the run” and “feed Zeke” remained the order of the day.

Until Sunday. Following a meeting where Jason Garrett took responsibility for some of the struggles, the team ditched the run-first approach. That seems like more than just coincidence. Garrett is the architect of the Cowboys as they exist, and has long espoused the idea that the offense should be built around a strong ground game, but Prescott continued to put up numbers that belied that outdated philosophy, even in some of the losses. He was thriving under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna. That loss to the Vikings, where he still put up 397 yards and three touchdowns, seems to have been the breaking point for Garrett’s stubbornness. He was forced to leap into 21st century NFL offensive thinking.

It was hoped that Moore’s promotion to offensive coordinator would be a catalyst for that from the moment he got the new gig. That didn’t work out quite as some of us hoped, but this may be a clear case of better late than never. Most importantly, that 71% chance means it most likely was not too late.

They still have Elliott available if they want to slow things down and burn clock with a lead, or for short-yardage situations, like his rushing TD. Besides, they don’t want to become predictable again, and that requires a viable rushing threat. That touchdown off the screen pass offers a tantalizing way he can also contribute in a pass-first offense.

The question now is, can the rest of the team step up? That includes both coaches and the other players.

There was a lesser development for the offense against the Lions that could pay out-sized dividends going forward, and that was Tony Pollard seeming to be properly integrated into the offense for the first time. He only had six touches, but was very effective. That was most evident on the seven-play Dallas drive that started near the end of the first quarter and led to their first touchdown in the second. Pollard had three of his six touches during it, gaining 12 yards on two carries before taking a pass in the flat 21 yards to the end zone. He was in for the whole drive to relieve Elliott of some of the workload, and that is growing into a positive thing.

It is as much about the growth of Moore as it is about Pollard’s development as a rookie. We saw another great example to seal the win on the Blake Jarwin reception to get a first down and let the offense kneel out the clock. The team was deep in their own end of the field, and did not want to give the surprisingly feisty Lions a last shot with a bit of time to work with. In the past, if that was the call, it would have been Jason Witten as the target. But this looked like a recognition that Jarwin is now a better receiver than the long-time, once-retired veteran.

The offense was operating at a high degree of efficiency, but that is not enough if the Cowboys want to find success in the playoffs rather than just a quick and disappointing exit. Unfortunately, the defense and special teams have just not been keeping up.

Recent weeks have seen some real struggles for the linebackers, once thought to be a real strength of the team. There have been plays where Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee all looked bad, particularly with missed tackles. They all still have the ability to diagnose and attack plays, but have just not been finishing the way they were earlier in the season, or last year when Smith and Vander Esch looked like the LB duo of the future. The secondary has been better, but not consistent enough. Interceptions have been few and far between. Now Anthony Brown is having season-ending surgery. However, given the way Jourdan Lewis has played, that may not be a true negative.

Only the defensive ends have truly been living up to expectations, if not exceeding them. DeMarcus Lawrence is not getting the most sacks of the group, but he continues to be disruptive as a pass rusher and extremely good against the run. Once Robert Quinn finished his two-game suspension, he became a true force, and leads the team with 8.5 sacks in just eight games. The surprise trade for Michael Bennett also has paid immediate dividends, he’s already climbing the sacks leaderboard.

Overall, however, the defense is going to have to do better, and then be more consistent. They cannot be as soft as they were against Jeff Driskel and Bo Scarbrough if those playoff odds are not to shrink.

While the defense has been uneven, special teams have been very steady. Steadily bad. Brett Maher has been unreliable at times - and field goal kicking is by far the best part of the ST performance. There has been absolutely nothing from either kickoff or punt returns, save something like the Pollard “oops, I have to return this one because it didn’t go into the end zone” play. Tavon Austin is as likely to lose ground as not returning punts, and really seemed to be trying way too hard to make up for the fair catch fiasco in the Minnesota game. As for covering kicks and punts, well, the Lions got 115 yards against the Cowboys that way. To use precise, technical terms, the Cowboys’ special teams suck right now.

They lost one of their aces when Kavon Frazier went on IR. Now Jeff Heath is also hurt. It may just make things worse. There is no obvious answer, but ST coordinator Keith O’Quinn needs to come up with something, or prepare to find a new job.

In the end, it may come down to just how much the defense and special teams can correct their problems. Prescott and the offense have shown they can carry things - if they are not asked to do too much.

There’s still the curse of the slow starts. Hopefully, regression to the mean will occur. Or they will finally hang onto the ball and execute early.

Still, 71% is pretty good odds. It’s a lot better than the Eagles have. They now only have a 41% chance, according to the article, and would be out of the playoffs entirely if they were starting today. For a little while at least, we can have some schadenfreude over that.