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Cowboys lesson learned after 36-33 loss to Raiders: Focus on the NFC East

Just getting into the playoffs is not assured, and it’s time to take care of business for the Cowboys.

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There are lessons in football that are subtle and hard to discern. And then there are the ones that come up and punch you right in the mouth, then sit on your chest shouting in your face just to make sure you get the message. The second type is what we have after the Dallas Cowboys suffered another frustrating loss on Thanksgiving. The 36-33 overtime defeat at the hands of the Las Vegas Raiders really leaves them with one thing to focus on. They now have to figure out how to win the NFC East.

Just four weeks ago, sights were set on a high playoff seeding. Now after a 1-3 stretch, with all three defeats at the hands of the AFC West, the Cowboys sit at 7-4, two full games out of the number one seed in the NFC. They instead have to focus on winning their own division. Back during those good times, they were poised to run away with the NFC East. Now a resurgent Philadelphia Eagles team is just two games back. The Cowboys have six remaining games, four of them against division opponents. The other two are at the New Orleans Saints, who are certainly having their own problems, and hosting the Arizona Cardinals, who currently possess the best record in the NFC at 9-2, and would get that coveted number one seed if the playoffs started today.

The Eagles are the real challenge for Dallas to overcome in hanging onto the division, and they have an easier schedule. They still have their bye week coming, a game against the New York Jets, and then all of their games facing the New York Giants and the Washington Football Team followed by the season finale hosting Dallas. The NFL schedulers back-loaded things across the league to have divisional matchups in December and January, and the Eagles may have the most extreme case, having only played one earlier division game, against Dallas. While the Football Team is also showing signs of improvement, the Eagles still look better than them and the Giants. On paper, they should win all six of their remaining games. That means the Cowboys have to win four of their remaining games. They won the first meeting with Philadelphia, which could be important if things get down to tiebreakers.

However, the Cowboys have now lost three games in November that they could have won, based on the records and performance of the teams they faced. They didn’t. Now they have those four remaining division games, where things so often don’t go according to form. And three of them are away games in outdoor stadiums. Dallas is just not a cold weather team.

The challenge of making the playoffs was largely seen as a done deal. Now, the challenge is real, significant, and right in front of the team. We have seen late season collapses by the Cowboys in the recent past. The stage for another one is certainly set. And there are just too many questions left to answer.

  • At one point, it looked like the team could overcome the absence of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. It simply couldn’t. The team hopes to have both back next week, but it is a grim reminder of just how random injuries can derail things. Further, good teams are supposed to overcome such things. For the first half of the season, the Cowboys were doing very well in that category. Now, they aren’t. It is worth noting that Las Vegas saw both TE Darren Waller and DE Carl Nassib leave the game and not return, so it wasn’t just Dallas that was dealing with lost starters.
  • Dak Prescott just has not seemed right since injuring his calf. He is less decisive, gets off to a slow start, and misses more throws than he has in the past.
  • The constant shuffle on the offensive line is a problem, and one the coaching staff seems to be making worse. They moved Terence Steele back to RT once Tyron Smith was back. Smith remains one of the best left tackles in the league, but on at least one play he completely blew his assignment, letting the Raiders get a free run at Prescott. With Steele, the assumption is that he is just playing better than La’el Collins, which itself is a bit worrisome. And they have already done the Connor shuffle, replacing Connor Williams with Connor McGovern.
  • The running game has largely disappeared for the Cowboys. The failure is most evident at the start of games, when it seems like all the handoffs result in two- or three-yard gains, at most. Against both the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs in the previous game, Dallas started with three and outs, largely due to failed running plays, and then found itself in immediate seven-point holes as the opponents marched right down the field and scored upon getting the ball.
  • With the ground game sputtering, the missing wide receivers, and Prescott’s less capable play, Kellen Moore has lost his magic. It is a valid argument that it may be as much because of the clear struggles of the offensive players, but this offense only seems to wake up in the fourth quarter. That is far too late.
  • The defense is also faltering. They are not getting takeaways the way they were the first half of the season. We all knew that was almost inevitable, but now we are seeing just how many warts those were covering. The Cowboys were credited with three sacks of Derek Carr, but he evaded the rush multiple times to throw deep down field and draw defensive pass interference on Anthony Brown.
  • Even without the penalties, Dallas was abysmal in surrendering big plays. They gave up two of 50+ yards, three more of 30 or more, and four that went more than 20. That’s to a team that was missing their biggest threat, Waller, for more than half the game.
  • The officiating was terrible, with the two teams each getting 14 flags, and the Cowboys setting an all time franchise record for yardage assessed against them at 166. While there certainly were some flags that deserved to be thrown, it is no question that the impact was greater for Dallas, as the penalties repeatedly helped extend drives for Las Vegas.

The most egregious example were the four defensive pass interference calls on Anthony Brown. He came into this game having only been flagged ONCE all season. Now we are to believe he suddenly is one of the worst cornerbacks in the league? Again, he did have some calls that looked legitimate, but by the final, game-deciding one in overtime, it certainly seemed that the refs were going to throw the flag if it was an incompletion, justified or not.

That’s a lot of crap to clean up. Dallas an still take care of things just by winning more games, but right now that is very hard for them to do. Just getting into the playoffs by winning their division is a much more difficult task as December starts than it looked at the end of October.