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Lessons for the Cowboys from the NFL conference championship games

What can be learned by watching the best of 2020 play.

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers
Not gonna lie, there were some things I enjoyed. Like this.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It is not a lot of fun for us to watch other teams play into January while the Dallas Cowboys are right where we are, sitting at home. But there are always things that can be learned. Here are some lessons we can take from the NFC and AFC championship games.

Defense can indeed win a championship

If you looked at his stat line, you would think the headline about Tom Brady after the game should have been “Brady misses chance with sloppy performance” and things of that nature. He was just not very good, only completing 20 of 36 passes for 280 yards, three touchdowns, and the biggie, three interceptions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were minus one in the turnover battle. That is always hard to overcome, but when the Brady picks came should have been absolutely devastating. They happened on three consecutive drives in the second half, and the sequence began with the Buccaneers leading by a score of 28-17, after Aaron Rodgers had just led his team to a touchdown. With those back-to-back-to-back opportunities, Rodgers, the best quarterback in the NFC, had more than enough opportunity to take the game over and break his opponent’s heart in a way Dallas fans of the past few years find far too familiar.

But he didn’t. He had only one scoring drive, netting six points after a failed two point conversion attempt. While the drives all started fairly deep in Green Bay territory, the impact of the Buccaneers defense stymying the man affectionately known as Aaron Freaking Rodgers, or words to that effect, cannot be overstated. In the game, Tampa Bay would sack him five times, including on both the three-and-outs that snuffed the final two chances to get points off turnovers.

Make no mistake, Brady repeatedly set his team up for disaster, and his defense bailed him out. They would later come up with a red zone stand as well to prevent the Packers from having a chance to tie the game. Brady has a chance to win his seventh ring despite his performance in the game, not because of it.

This is why it is so very crucial for the Cowboys to fix their defense this offseason. Hiring Dan Quinn and turning over some of the defensive staff is a good start. We will have to see how the coaching impacts things, but it is blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer that they also need some serious upgrades in personnel to deploy. One thing to note was that while the interior of their defensive line didn’t get any sacks, they did get two QB pressures. And of course there are the three picks.

It’s time for Dallas to load up on defense in free agency and/or the draft.

Cowards die a coward’s death

Due credit goes to our David Howman for putting that in the Twitterverse during the game. It is a just and accurate way to put the decision-making by Green Bay on that red zone trip just before the two minute warning of the game. First, Aaron Rodgers elected to make a very difficult and unsuccessful throw on third and goal when he had some space to get the ball closer to the goal line. Some say he could have scored, but there were four Buccaneers ready to close on him. Still, it would have set up a shorter field that might have made going for a touchdown a more likely possibility.

Even worse, Matt LaFleur made a truly timid decision to kick the field goal rather than try for six from the eight-yard line. He was asking the team to stop Brady and company with just 2:05 left in the game and then drive the field to score a touchdown, since the FG left them down by five. He also showed a lack of confidence in his quarterback, who was visibly down after the game. Had they failed on the touchdown try, they would have had the Bucs pinned deep, still needing a TD to have a chance to tie, albeit they would have needed a successful two point try. While Brady had a rough game overall, betting against him getting at least one first down to end the game was both unwise and unsuccessful.

It was also something that was apparently not communicated to Rodgers before the third down play, as he explained in his typical diplomatic and soft spoken way.

While it won’t silence it, this should at least quiet the discontent over how Mike McCarthy has performed compared to LaFleur. All indications are that the goal line situation would have been four-down territory for him. With a healthy Dak Prescott, it would also likely have succeeded, as he is not at all reluctant to use his legs in those situations, often to great effect.

That wasn’t the only coaching misfire for the Pack

At the end of the first half, Rodgers threw his lone interception of the game, giving the Buccaneers the ball at their own 49 with just :28 left on the clock, but with all three of their timeouts. They used one immediately after the turnover, then managed to get to the Green Bay 39, but had only :08 to work with. Amazingly, the Packers went with press man coverage and inside leverage against Scotty Miller, without deep help, and he ran by his man to score a crucial touchdown.

It was a mystifying decision. While Brady was not exactly tearing things up, this was before his string of interceptions. Defense 101 says you go with a prevent in that situation, forcing any passes to be completed in front of the deep coverage and trying to force the clock to run out. Instead, it would help provide the eventual winning margin for Tampa Bay.

If Quinn only watches one play from the NFCCG to try and take something away, it is this one.

Let’s say it again - the Cowboys have to pay Dak

The AFCCG was much less dramatic, as the Kansas City Chiefs spotted the Buffalo Bills a nine-point lead before roaring to 38 points, with the game not really in doubt by the start of the second half, and the Chief in complete control by the beginning of the fourth quarter. It was a masterful display by Patrick Mahomes, who is arguably the best quarterback in the league, and certainly the best under age 30. Josh Allen had a great season leading the Bills to this game, but was clearly outclassed by Mahomes. It is a bit amusing to go back and see that some thought Allen was the better QB before the game. Mahomes was playing with an injured toe, but he didn’t look as if he even noticed.

It is one more reason why the Cowboys need to get over themselves and meet the demands of Prescott and his agent to secure a multi-year deal. They will have to pay a steep price, but Mahomes showed how that does not automatically cripple a team. He is on the richest contract in NFL history, a staggering 10-year deal that pays him an average of $45 million annually. Dallas must be prepared to pay Prescott something at least in that ballpark, if not quite that rich. Prescott is one of the few quarterbacks in the league that can approach Mahomes’ level of performance. He has shown a similar mobility and ability to make throws on the move. He is not quite as good, which is true of every other QB in the league, and certainly does not have the résumé of Mahomes, who is already dipping his toe into HOF waters.

The Bills got timid, too

It’s a similar lesson as the decision to kick that field goal late in the game by the Packers. Admittedly, the Bills were down 17 points with just over three minutes left in the game when they elected to kick a field goal. But it has all the hallmarks of a give-up play. That is hardly the message to send as you end a season. As noted, this is one that McCarthy already seems to understand. You can always use another reminder, however.

Those are notable lessons for the Cowboys, and for all of us. Now we can only hope the people at The Star will take them to heart.