As my fellow contributor to Blogging The Boys Tony Catalina likes to say, it is all in front of the Dallas Cowboys. They have an 8-4 record and a two game lead in the NFC East. All they have to do is take care of business and win three of their last five games to lock up the division and a likely number four seed for the playoffs. That is even without any help.
So why is there such a sense of unease for many fans? Mostly, it centers around the remaining schedule for Dallas. They have to play all three of their division rivals, including both of the games against the Washington Football Team, over this last stretch. The New York Giants appear dead in the water at this point, but both the Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles continue to hang around. They seem to be fighting for a wild card bid, but both still harbor hopes of knocking the Cowboys out of the division crown. That would require a bit of help, and they both could eliminate the other as they also still have to play both of their games against one another.
What Dallas needs to avoid is having to depend on other losses by opponents. That means finding those three wins, assuming one is against Washington. To do so will rest on two factors: The health of the roster and the focus of the players, both of which have certainly played roles in the three losses in November.
The first really could not be going much better for Dallas. They have already seen the return of DeMarcus Lawrence from IR, and Amari Cooper back from the COVID protocol. This week we should see Trysten Hill back from suspension and Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore back from their own stints on IR. That puts the Cowboys at the healthiest overall this entire season. You just don’t see that happen this late in the year. Last week’s win over the New Orleans Saints even saw them overcome the absence of much of the coaching staff, most notably head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach Joe Philbin, and they should be back in time for this week’s contest at Washington.
Meanwhile, the fighting Teams are facing some health issues of their own. They have lost DE Chase Young for the season, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is gone for the year as well, although the chance of him unseating Taylor Heinicke even if he had returned was very slim. DE Montez Sweat also went on IR, and it is questionable that he could return in time for the game versus Dallas. However, the absence of Young and Sweat has not stopped the WFT defense from playing the last few games the way they were supposed to all season. Now they have a new concern on offense, however. TE Logan Thomas injured his knee in their win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday. The latest reports are that it might not be as serious as first feared, but it seems unlikely he would be able to return this week. His backup, Ricky Seals-Jones, is trying to return after his own injury, which may alleviate things.
Still, at kickoff, the Cowboys look to be much closer to full strength for this game. Keeping healthy is another matter, as injuries, like the turnovers that made the win over the Saints possible, are subject to chance. But with the way the reinforcements are returning, Dallas may be able to be in a favorable position due to health the rest of the way. Their major concern now may be the lingering effects of Ezekiel Elliott’s own knee problems, which have visibly affected his play. The ten-day break since the appearance on TNF should help, and Tony Pollard has demonstrated he is a more than capable backup.
As mentioned, they can’t really control that. What they can at least try to correct is the lingering lack of focus. That covers a variety of things, from Dak Prescott’s spotty performance since his own calf injury, to the reshuffling on the offensive line, to Kellen Moore’s lackluster play-calling the past few games, to the defense still being far too vulnerable to big plays at crucial times. They have to fix all that. The running game has certainly suffered during the recent stretch of games. Hopefully that will come around as the line gets more and more time with a stable group. The return of Philbin and his staff should also pay dividends. The game prep for the Saints also was probably affected by McCarthy’s own absence from the Star.
Now those are no longer causes or excuses that can be cited, assuming the staff gets cleared for normal duties this week. That puts things on the coaches and players to get things working correctly. Dan Quinn returning to the booth to direct the defense should also be a big help. The Cowboys can no longer rely on the big lead in the division they had earlier in the season. Every game counts now, and they cannot look ahead, either. A win this week is pretty vital. It is an away game and the crowd at Landover should be re-energized as the fighting Teams are showing so much, well, fight of late.
This is not going to be an easy contest. Dallas is a four-point favorite in the game, but even a one point victory would be welcome. Ugly wins count just as much in the standings as a blowout. It is not time to look to tiebreakers when things can be decided outright with a strong finish to the regular season.
That is going to require that focus on the mission at hand, and continued good health would be big. Let’s hope for both.