How in the world has it come to this? On Sunday, two of the worst teams in the NFL are meeting for the first of two divisional meetings. The New York Giants were rather expected to be at that level. The Dallas Cowboys, under new head coach Mike McCarthy, were most definitely not. But your record is the only truly important thing in the NFL, and between the two teams, there is only one victory. And the win over the Atlanta Falcons was not one the Cowboys deserved after so much dysfunctional play, something that has continued in the intervening weeks.
Given the offensive firepower that Dallas has demonstrated even while fumbling games away or having a defense that has been trenchantly described as watching “a wet paper bag attempt to stop a freight train,” this game should not be much concern beyond the old saw about divisional rivals never going down easily. Now, however, there is a growing fear that this edition of the team cannot get out of its own way. It is verging on being the team that elevates otherwise marginal NFL talents to world beaters for a day. Admittedly, that is not a new thing, as we have seen this team turn Adrian Clayborn into a one-game sack monster and made the New York Jets look competent in recent history. But even in the worst recent seasons, the Cowboys were able to beat up on at least a couple of division rivals, with the Giants being one of the more reliable teams they could beat even when everything else was falling apart.
On paper, that’s what this should be. But the depressing depths the defense has sunken to strike fear that Daniel Jones will catch fire for an afternoon while Jason Garrett finds a magic touch with his play sheet. When Dallas has the ball, we aren’t worried so much about what the defense will do. We hold our breath almost every play that the football won’t be knocked from the grasp of Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott only to bounce merrily into the hands of the New Yorkers from New Jersey.
What makes this even more stomach-churning is that the Cowboys are far from out of the race for the divisional title and the automatic playoff berth. They are tied with the Washington Football Team and just a half game behind the sister-smooching Philadelphia Eagles. It may be a somewhat ignominious path to the postseason, but at the moment, we will take it, however ugly the journey might be.
That dubious bit of glory would be placed in extreme jeopardy if Dallas falls to defeat again this Sunday. Suddenly, it would be very difficult to point to any game remaining on the schedule as one they should be able to win. If you can’t beat the worst, you are not going to do so well against even the average, much less the better teams still coming down the pike.
This Cowboys team has to be suffering a serious case of doubt, both about themselves and the coaching staff. McCarthy claimed he was going to adapt scheme to fit the talent of his players. That might be the case with the offense, where Kellen Moore has produced some prodigious numbers and three consecutive games with over 30 points. Those are things that have to be considered skeptically, however, in light of how much time this team has been trailing in games, often by two or more scores. He was forced into putting the ball in Prescott’s hands to try and mount comebacks. Meanwhile, the running game has been largely an afterthought.
The defense is just bad and seems to be getting worse.
Garrett has continued his conservative, run-oriented ways with New York. He has also been forced to do so without Saquon Barkley, who was lost to IR with an ACL tear. However, the Dallas defense has been simply abysmal against the run, yielding a mind-numbing 307 yards on the ground to the Cleveland Browns. For once, establishing the run could well be the ticket to easy scores for the Giants, even with backup backs and a suspect offensive line. It must also be noted their defense just held the Los Angeles Rams to 17 points and 240 total yards, albeit in a losing effort. They certainly come into this game just as desperate for a win as the Cowboys, which adds another dangerous element to the mix.
If Dallas can win the game, it will offer at least a faint flicker of hope they can still figure things out and still challenge for the division. A big win would be more encouraging. Just eking out a close one would have troubling implications, but still be far better than the alternative.
That alternative, however, could be the start of a real spiral downward - or the continuation of one that has already begun. It might turn the remainder of this season into a long evaluation of both coaches and players to see who is really valuable to this team next year. Even in that case, there are ample reasons to doubt just how well the team would do, given some rather questionable personnel decisions made already this season.
What they do this week is far more important than a week five game is supposed to be. This is a team very close to the brink. Coming back from what would be an especially soul crushing defeat would begin to approach the impossible. A win may not really prove anything. But they just about have to have one at this point for things to not go right down the drain.