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The NFC remains open but should the Cowboys’ mindset be “one-seed or bust?”

The Cardinals MNF loss opened the door to move up but is seeding more important than health and rest?

NFL: DEC 12 Cowboys at Washington Football Team Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys, winners of their last two, are far from firing on all cylinders as they head into the final four games of the regular season. That said, the team is 9-4 and has a three-game lead in the division with a remote chance to clinch this Sunday. The offense is all kinds of out of sorts, while the defense, despite being as healthy as it's been all season and showing flashes of dominance, has had its own moments of inconsistency. Put simply, the team could stand to keep competing at a high level in search of a little rhythm. At least in an ideal world.

With Tyron Smith out once more with a reaggravated ankle injury that’s already cost him three games this season, Lael Collins facing a possible suspension after throwing a punch defending his quarterback last Sunday, and the running back stable being fairly beaten and battered, is it worth risking further potential injury to key players?

Ezekiel Elliott looks to be at roughly 70% of his usual self, while Tony Pollard is working his way back from a foot injury that cost him last Sunday’s game at Washington. The team seems optimistic that he’ll play Sunday against the Giants but the run game, even before his injury, has been MIA over the past month. That lack of balance has further exasperated Dak Prescott’s recent struggles, along with inconsistent offensive line play that has him seeing ghosts like he’s facing off with the Atlanta Falcons circa 2017.

Dak has not been as bad over the past month as he was for the remainder of the 2017 season and first half of 2018, but he hasn't looked anything like the MVP candidate he did through the first seven games of 2021. Without his starting left tackle once more and without a dependable run game to lean on, Prescott is bound to be under added duress against division rivals New York and Philadelphia and a Cardinals team that’s gunning for the number-one seed in the NFC.

As it stands now, Dallas effectively sits two games back of the best record in the NFL, with Tampa Bay owning the tiebreaker by virtue of their season-opening win against the Cowboys. A win against the Giants on Sunday could result in a home playoff game. You’d love to move up and nab a second potential game with your home crowd, but walking the line between optimal health and rhythm vs. rust can be razor thin.

The odds that Prescott begins to see the field better and perform at the level he did earlier this season without getting his offensive line locked down and his running backs getting a little push aren’t terribly high. The defense, however, is showing it may be capable of carrying the team in the interim the way the offense has carried the burden over the past few years, as well as the first few weeks of the season.

As such, it would be in Dallas’s best interest to lean on its defense a little bit and manage games offensively to simplify things for Prescott and help him gradually break from the relative “slump” he’s in rather than trying to press and push the ball downfield when his touch is clearly off right now.

In short, Dallas should, of course, try to continue winning and building momentum toward the playoffs. If it helps them move up, great. But don’t push so aggressively with the mindset of game-planning and trying to execute the way you did earlier in the season. You could dig an even deeper hole or risk your quarterback by asking him to hold onto the ball longer than necessary, and risk taking unnecessary hits that will only further skew his internal timer and undercut his trust in his protection. It’s a fine line but one the Cowboys have no choice but to navigate.