The Dallas Cowboys have six games to go, with the New Orleans Saints up next. Both teams are reeling in losing streaks. That means they are both also badly in need of a win. Although there is still plenty of time for either team to recover from a stumble on Thursday Night Football, it just gets harder as the losses pile up.
That is one of the dangers for Dallas. They can lose and still be in decent shape, but New Orleans is in a fight to claim a wildcard spot. There is currently a four-way tie for the last NFC slot, and the tiebreakers have the Saints on the outside. They are going to throw Taysom Hill at the Cowboys, and frankly we have no idea what that means. He hasn’t thrown enough passes to even show up on most stat charts. Does Sean Payton trust him to run an effective passing game, or will New Orleans mostly try to exploit the Dallas run defense? Their running back room is healthier than it has been with both Alvin Kamara and Melvin Ingram likely to go, and while Hill is somewhat suspect as a passer, he is definitely a threat running the ball. The Cowboys are now without Trysten Hill in the middle for the game as he is suspended. Hill (the Cowboys one) had one of the better performances on defense for Dallas against the Las Vegas Raiders. The expected return of DeMarcus Lawrence may help offset that as he excellent against the run. And Dallas still has DROY lock and rising DPOY candidate Micah Parsons.
Defensively, the Saints are very strong against the run. With the Cowboys struggling to do anything on the ground, that means the game will likely be decided by the effectiveness of Dak Prescott and the passing game. With Amari Cooper possibly still suffering some effects from COVID and Cedrick Wilson reported as out for the game, that could be dicey. But the current expectation that Cooper will play has to be a boost.
In any case, this game will be important in determining how the rest of the season will go for the Cowboys. There are three paths ahead of them.
1. They wind up in a fight to the very end for the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles took a huge blow in their loss to the New York Giants, and the Giants now will likely be without starting quarterback Daniel Jones for at least this week. But the Washington Football Team is on a hot streak and hold the tie-breaker for that last wildcard spot at the moment. They will be fighting hard the rest of the way to hang on. The Cowboys still have to play them twice in December.
If Dallas stumbles yet again against New Orleans, this becomes a real issue. That would leave them with four remaining games against the division, where weird things can happen, plus the week 17 matchup versus the Arizona Cardinals, who currently sit in the number one seed. Unless the Football Team also starts to struggle, they could be facing a real challenge.
However, that two full-game lead, plus having three of their four losses against AFC teams, gives the Cowboys a real advantage down the stretch. That makes this the least likely way things could play out.
2. The Cowboys will get locked into their seeding by week 16 or so, and the final two games, against the Cardinals and at the Eagles, will be meaningless. The fourth seed seems the most likely outcome, so now the team has to consider who they have to face. The Los Angeles Rams are the most likely suspect. They are having their own issues of late, but still can be a dangerous team.
This means that Dallas can be very cautious with injuries, focusing on getting the roster to maximum health for the playoffs. They might also rest some of the healthy starters for at least parts of the final two games. It can be a bad idea to have the best players just sit out entire games, but if they get a half of work, they should be able to stay sharp. Let backups handle the second halves as much as possible in this situation.
Looking at things, this seems the most likely way the season will wind down. It may make the final two games less entertaining, but it could pay dividends in the postseason.
3. They stay alive to move up in the seeding all the way to the end. This is the best outcome, and cannot be discounted with the chaos that has prevailed in the NFL. The three teams currently ahead of them, the Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also face some divisional matchups down the stretch. As mentioned, funny things happen in those. And any game can go wildly against expectations this year.
If you are a fan of keeping the edge sharp, this is what you want to see. And of course, it could lead to a much easier opponent in the first round. There is even a remote chance that the Cowboys could still have a shot at the number one seed and the bye. But it is more likely that they have a real shot at moving up to the three seed. Right now, that would be the San Francisco 49ers, but that could easily change.
I do not include the possibility of Dallas having a real slump to end things and missing the playoffs entirely. You can never say never, especially this year, but I am going to remain optimistic and say that they will manage to avoid this.
The likely outcome will be that things are locked down for seeding with a couple of games left to play. The final option is the preferable one, but not the most likely. Still, with how wacky things have been in the league, nothing is really off the table. The outcome of the Saints game will clearly give us a better idea of which direction things are going to go.