For the third week in a row, there is some frustration with the Dallas Cowboys. The team visited the New York Giants and escaped with a disappointing margin of victory against at team they should have dominated. Similarly desultory results also characterized the first two games of the long road trip they just finished. In all three games, they faced backup quarterbacks and should have put together blowouts, but against the New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, and the Giants they only managed one- or two-score wins. Dak Prescott and the offense continue to struggle, and only phenomenal, and probably unsustainable, defensive performances have kept them alive. They are limping into the playoffs and look far from ready to face the expected competition joining them from the NFC.
That, at least, is one narrative, and it was once again very much in evidence as the 21-6 victory over the Giants wound to a close. There is a counter viewpoint, however. Dallas is winning games on the road, some in cold climes where they do not perform particularly well, which leads to good things. Since December started, that is all they have done - win. It has gotten them to a 10-4 record and, unless the Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles end up in a tie when they play their postponed game Tuesday, a three-game lead for the NFC East with just three to play. They almost locked up a playoff spot on Sunday, but other games did not fall that way, and they have to wait another week at the minimum to be assured of a spot in the postseason, unless that tie happens to assure them of the division crown.
On the plus side, after entering Sunday’s contest as the fourth seed in the NFC, they finished the day as the number two. It turns out the other leaders in the conference were having their own struggles, and not of the “not enough style points” variety. The Arizona Cardinals were humiliated by the Detroit Lions, who came into the game with a symmetric but still embarrassing 1-11-1 record, 30-12. Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went up against the Saints, who were still playing with a backup QB, and got shut out 9-0. That means that for at least a week, the Cowboys are the number two team in the conference, which means at least two home games in the playoffs if it holds up. Only the Green Bay Packers have a better record in the entire league at 11-3. And don’t forget that staying in the number one position came down to a failed two-point conversion by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Those Ravens were, like the Saints, playing with a backup QB.
Just a couple of weeks ago, there was some worry that Dallas wouldn’t be able to rise above the fourth seed, assuming they could fend off what were then surging Philadelphia and Washington teams to stay in control of their division. There were even some doubts about that as a variety of issues continue to plague the Cowboys. There seems to be more focus on those lingering problems even though the team has just been winning games since December started.
Here are some points to consider in all of this:
- As has been noted repeatedly, winning in the NFL is hard. Just having superior talent or a genius coach is no guarantee of a win, even if the opponent is far inferior - at least on paper. This late in the season, even teams who have been eliminated from the postseason can come out swinging, because they know they can play spoiler as well as trying to have something to build on for the next season. That is just what we saw already this week. Not only did division leaders lose in the NFC, two of the AFC’s best teams (by record) saw defeat, the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans. Even a supposedly piece of cake schedule can be no assurance of success.
- If you focus on your own business, things may fall your way. The first priority, the only priority, is to win the game you are playing each week. While help can come from other teams, you can never depend on that. The surest way to the playoffs is just win enough games. Something must be going right for the Cowboys, because only one team in the entire league, the Packers, has more wins. Meanwhile, the teams that were once ahead of them have had those unexpected losses. Things sometimes come your way if you are patient.
- Don’t let the issues blind you to the strengths. And right now, the strength of the Dallas Cowboys is the defense that Dan Quinn has completely reshaped. It has been grabbing turnovers all season. Many feel is that not sustainable, but over the current-three game winning streak, the Cowboys have taken the ball away at least four times in each. They are also getting to the quarterback as the defensive line gets players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Neville Gallimore back. Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs are the most visible stars, but they have plenty of talent around them, and it shows. It is still true that defensive success correlates strongly with the efficiency of the offenses it faces, but this still seems like a unit that can come up with a crucial stop when the team needs it. And as we saw this weekend, some of those high-powered offenses can sputter.
- The offense did improve against the Giants. Yes, we wanted more than two touchdowns, and there were not any sustained drives. But a major step that we really wanted to see was accomplished. Connor Williams returned to the starting LG job. The effects seemed clear. The running game took a definite uptick, and the best runs seemed to go right behind Williams. He also allowed just one pressure all game. And this allowed Connor McGovern to return to the role of fullback/extra blocker. He almost got a target from Prescott on the touchdown pass that eventually went to Dalton Shultz, but was covered.
- They still need to sort out left tackle. During the game they rotated Terence Steele and Ty Nsekhe, supposedly based on who is better in pass versus run blocking. That seems fraught with obvious issues. The hope is that Tyron Smith will soon be back, but no matter how that works out, it seems preferable to have one left tackle and stick with him each game. Still, the Connor to Connor switch was badly needed and should help a lot.
- There is still time to work on the passing game, and AT&T Stadium is the place to do it. When the effect of cold weather and wind are brought up, it is treated as making excuses for Prescott (or at times Greg Zuerlein). Yet it is just a fact that some players do better than others in adverse conditions. Prescott functions better indoors or in warm weather. That should surprise no one as he played all of this high school and college games in the south, and his pro career has been based in Dallas.
- There have been suggestions that the play calling in Washington and New York was designed to be conservative and not overtax Prescott in cold conditions where he was not most comfortable. Now they will be back inside, or at least playing in good weather with the roof open. It is a great opportunity to work further down the field. We also will get to see if the receivers were having their own issues with the cold. There is a pretty good chance that the second game against the Football Team will see improvement in the passing game similar to that we saw in the running game versus the Giants.
- Timing is everything. If the Cowboys do indeed improve further on their offense, and the defense just keeps being itself, they are peaking at the right time. They still need to take care of their business over the final three games and let things come to them as far as the seeding is concerned. The major concern then, as it is for all teams, is health. It is important to avoid injuries as much as possible, and also COVID. We are seeing just how much those can disrupt things. There is always a huge element of luck here, so we can just hope. But the controllable things also seem to be coming together for Dallas. This is the ideal time to get hot.
After decades of disappointment, it is understandable that many reflexively default to “glass half empty” thinking about the Cowboys. But there is so much more that is positive than negative this year, starting with that 10-4 record and number two seed. No team is perfect, as the weekend has demonstrated quite convincingly. If you focus on the problems without acknowledging what is going well, it is hard to enjoy what is happening. We don’t know how far Dallas can go this year. What is all but absolute is that they have the opportunity to achieve something that they were not afforded in recent seasons. It may go bad far too soon. But just maybe it won’t.