If there is ever a good time to square off against a borderline Super Bowl contender, it is this week. The Dallas Cowboys, who have already clinched the NFC East and thus are only jockeying for seeding, found life on offense in Week 16. The Arizona Cardinals, who still boast an elite defense, have struggled on offense and dropped their last three games.
Because of this momentum imbalance, the Cowboys find themselves as a 5.5-point favorite, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. So, can Dallas deliver on Vegas’ expectations and beat the 10-5 Cardinals two weeks before playoffs?
The Cowboys offense
Outside of fighting for the number one overall pick, what do the Jets, Jaguars, Texans, and Lions have in common? They have all allowed fewer points over the last three weeks than the Arizona Cardinals. The Cowboys face a defense on their heels.
However, as Dallas fans have become well aware, every team in the NFL goes through a slump. The Cardinals’ defense is still scary and needs to be respected.
So, how do the Cowboys keep the offensive momentum going?
Similar to Dallas, the Cardinals possess an elite defensive line headlined by Chandler Jones, Jordan Hicks, and Jordan Phillips, but they do give up yards to running backs. Allowing 4.5 yards per attempt, they rank 19th in the NFL by the percentage of rushing attempts allowed that are deemed “successful.”
However, teams are only running on Arizona 40 percent of the time, among the lowest rate in the league before their three-game skid. That has changed lately, and see if you can find a commonality across the losing streak:
- Rams started the game up 10-3, ran the ball 21 times
- Detroit started the game up 24-3, ran the ball 34 times
- Indianapolis started the game up 12-6, ran the ball 33 times
This is not an argument for “establishing the run,” but rather, the Cowboys need to get off to a strong start to keep the rushing playbook open. If Dallas is down two scores this week, the ground game becomes less of an option, and thus coming out quick is pivotal against a weaker Cardinals run defense.
The Cowboys excel in this, with their eight first-quarter points per game being the best in the NFL. It just has to continue on Sunday. But what happens if the Cowboys go down early and need to air it out? The offensive line becomes arguably the most critical factor in this game.
The Cardinals are surrendering a 91.4 passer rating, ranking fifteenth in the league, and thus their coverage unit is nothing special. However, they force a sack on 7.3% of dropbacks, good for seventh in the NFL. They dismantle opponents’ drives by generating pressure.
Therefore, in passing situations, Connor Williams, La’el Collins, Tyler Biadasz, Zach Martin, and hopefully Tyron Smith will have to give Dak time to throw.
Mike McCarthy says he thinks Tyron Smith will be a limited participant at practice today, at a minimum. Could potentially be a full participant.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 29, 2021
If Dak is able to throw, the Arizona secondary is beatable. But this becomes an entirely different game if the formidable Cardinals pass rush impacts this matchup. Thus, the game plan is starting fast and getting points on the board early to keep the entire playbook open. From there, Kellen Moore will utilize both the air and ground game to exploit a regressing Cardinals defense.
However, if they fall behind early, we have to hope the offensive line can provide Dak with time to throw against a defensive line that knows how to get to the quarterback. It starts and ends with the big men upfront.
The Cowboys defense
You might be able to guess at this point, but what do the Jets, Bears, Lions, and Football Team have in common? Hats off to you for finding the pattern; they have all scored more than the Cardinals over the last three weeks. It has truly been a rough stretch for Arizona.
But this is a unique test for Dallas because, outside of one game against Jalen Hurts and another against Taysom Hill, the Cowboys have not faced a mobile quarterback like Kyler Murray. Even in the two games matchups against a quarterback with scrambling ability, Dallas surrendered a combined 136 rushing yards to those quarterbacks, as they both led their team on the ground.
This is the identity of the Cardinals. Behind a quarterback who can tuck and run, paired with two starter-quality halfbacks, Arizona runs the ball on 44% of plays, the ninth highest rate in the league.
Micah Parsons becomes essential in this game. The Cowboys’ defensive line has been impressive against the run this year, only allowing a successful run play on 39% of attempts. The rushing defense is the relatively weaker aspect of this unit, but they are stout enough to stop James Connor and Chase Edmonds.
However, Kyler Murray is a different beast.
Micah Parsons will likely see his pass-rush snaps decrease in this matchup as he gets the quarterback spy assignment. Parsons is the only non-secondary defender fast enough to follow Murray sideline to sideline, and his ability to finish the play makes him a great candidate to stop the quarterback scramble.
So, with the defensive line able to contain the rushing game and Parsons taking away Murray’s rushing ability, the only factor left is Murray’s arm. And with the second-highest passing grade by PFF, the Cardinals’ aerial attack is scary.
There has been no weakness in Murray’s passing game this season; he has excelled under pressure, with a clean pocket, with play-action, without play-action, passing deep, passing intermediate, and short. There is no weakness to his game, but there is one facet the Cowboys need to take away.
Dallas cannot let Kyler Murray beat them deep. On 20+ yard passes, Murray is averaging 16.2 yards per attempt, a 50.8% completion percentage, 986 yards for eight touchdowns, and a 43.3% big-time throw rate. All of those stats are top five in the league on deep passes.
Thus, the Cowboys will have to play a little deeper, primarily using cover two, in an effort to keep everything in front of them. Dallas has enough talent in the secondary to eliminate big plays that swing the momentum, but they will have to plan for it. In eliminating the ground game by using Parsons as a quarterback spy, you force the Cardinals to throw. While Murray has excelled in the passing game, his deep ball is particularly threatening. Thus, playing by cover two and giving the receivers cushion, you force Murray to methodically drive down the field and score.
Coaching and special teams
If the Broncos game was a “blueprint” for how other teams need to coach against the Cowboys, the Washington game was a “blueprint” for the Dallas coaches.
For Dan Quinn, just keep rolling. The defense will be ready to play and prove themselves against what many consider to be one of the league’s most explosive offenses.
Mike McCarthy demonstrated exceptional clock management at the end of the half against Washington and was even aggressive in the second half when the Cowboys had all but won it. That aggression and quick decision-making will be crucial in the postseason.
For Kellen Moore, it was a redemption game against the Football Team. He reverted to what he excels in, reading a defense and simply picking them apart by calling plays based on what the opposition is giving you. He didn’t try and force a game plan; he allowed Washington to dictate his decisions. It was masterful, a perfect illustration of what he was doing right before the bye.
As for John Fassel and the special teams, we know what to expect. Greg Zuerlein will miss the occasional kick, but he will be consistent when it matters. Zuerlein will finish the season on the roster, so there is no point arguing that. But Fassel brings a big-play ability to this team, one we haven’t seen in years from special teams. This year, the Cowboys have blocked three punts, which is impressive considering 25 teams have zero blocked punts in the 2021 season. The Cowboys are even generating points on special teams, which is incredible.
The only factor in this game left considering is the relative importance for each team. While the Cowboys are still fighting for seeding and want the easiest first-round matchup possible, the Cardinals are still in a division race. If Arizona wants a chance to recapture the NFC West lead, they cannot lose another game. Thus, they are likely going to face increased pressure to win. Now, how much that matters is still undecided, but it is one facet of this game that should be considered.
This is the perfect opportunity for the Cowboys to send another statement to the rest of the league. Dominate the impressive Cardinals defense, and shut down an MVP contending quarterback, no one in the NFC will want to see the Cowboys in the postseason.
We have reached January football. The time for Super Bowl contenders to get hot and find momentum before playoffs, and time for other teams to regress before a disappointing first-round exit. The Cowboys need to join the former group.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 51.7%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 24, Arizona Cardinals 23