Just a week ago, media outlets everywhere were preparing to crown the Cowboys as the team to beat in the NFC. There was good reason for that take, as the team had just won their sixth straight game and done so on the road with a backup quarterback who had never started in the NFL before. It really seemed like nothing could stop these Cowboys.
Well, now we know the Cowboys are capable of stopping themselves.
Some credit is due to the Denver Broncos, but there’s no way to overstate just how much Dallas beat themselves on Sunday. The Broncos ran all over the Cowboys defense with three backup offensive linemen, and according to Next Gen Stats, Denver quarterback Teddy Bridgewater didn’t throw a single pass into a tight window, meaning guys were open on every pass play. Meanwhile, as Bob Sturm of The Athletic broke down, the Denver defense didn’t do anything special to stop Dak Prescott and this offense; they just got lucky.
This is all to say that the Broncos didn’t expose some major flaw with this Cowboys team, but rather Dallas just had a very, very bad day. It happens in football, even to the best teams. We’re much more likely to see the Cowboys return to their high-scoring ways this week against a poor Falcons team than we are to see teams continue to beat down on them.
Which brings us to the first takeaway from this Sunday’s loss: nothing has changed for them. Coming into the early afternoon kickoff, Dallas held the highest odds of any team to win their division, both a testament to how good they’ve been and how bad the rest of the NFC East is. Barring some major disaster, the Cowboys are going to win their division and clinch a playoff berth. That much is certain.
What the Cowboys now must focus on is securing a first round bye in the playoffs. While last year’s Buccaneers won the Super Bowl without earning a first round bye, they’re the exception that proves the rule. In fact, in the last decade only four teams (out of 20) reached the Super Bowl without that extra week of rest. One of those teams, coincidentally, was coached by Mike McCarthy.
With last year’s expansion to seven playoff teams, the first-round bye is now reserved only for the top seed in each conference, meaning Dallas has some work to do in order to improve their odds of winning a Super Bowl. A week ago, they got some help with the Cardinals dropping their first game of the year and the Buccaneers (who hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas) losing to the Saints. That went along nicely with the Cowboys’ improbable victory over Minnesota.
That brings us to the second takeaway from this past weekend: thanks to a wild, and frankly dumb, slew of upsets on Sunday, the Cowboys’ odds of getting the top seed in the NFC didn’t really change either.
The Packers owned the best record in the NFC after beating Arizona, but they lost to the Chiefs on Sunday without Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay next takes on the Seahawks, who are getting Russell Wilson back this week. Rodgers is expected to return as well, but he won’t be eligible to be activated from the COVID-19 reserve list until the day before that game, complicating things for McCarthy’s former employer.
The Rams also dropped their second game of the year with a primetime beatdown at the hands of the Titans, who were without Derrick Henry. Los Angeles was another team that was getting buzz as a top team in the NFC, and like the Cowboys they’re still in that conversation. But they’re in the same division as the Cardinals, and that bodes well for Dallas.
Of course, the Cowboys also host the Cardinals in Week 17. Assuming that both teams win the rest of their games until that contest (which is highly unlikely) a win there would tie their records but give Dallas the head-to-head tiebreaker. That game could end up holding major playoff implications when it arrives.
In the meantime, the Cowboys need losses from both the Buccaneers and Packers. The odds of that happening for Tampa Bay aren’t great, as they have just two opponents with a winning record left on the schedule and both are at home. But Green Bay still has two games against the Vikings, home stands against the Rams and Browns, and a game at Baltimore.
Winning against the Broncos could have made things much simpler, but in no way did it harm the Cowboys’ current goals. The most positive silver lining is that Denver’s place in the AFC left Dallas with a 4-1 conference record. Given that no NFC team is undefeated in conference play, that could end up being a huge factor as the season progresses.
It was an ugly loss, and a win is always preferable, but this was about the best possible loss the Cowboys could have taken as it relates to their playoff seeding hopes. It won’t be long before we once again see the Cowboys that have dominated this year - and if we’re wrong about that, then seeding won’t matter much anyway - so it’s encouraging that their shot at earning a first round bye hasn’t diminished much.