The Dallas Cowboys go into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals with a playoff spot locked up as the NFC East champs. They still are playing to get the best seed possible, although news of the Minnesota Vikings placing Kirk Cousins in the COVID protocol dampens their chances of wresting the number one seed away from the Green Bay Packers. Still, they want to have as many home games in the playoffs as possible. The matter of how far they can go this year remains. The 11-4 record and the outstanding performance against the Washington Football Team give us high hopes. The opponents during the current four-game winning streak have not exactly been powerhouses, however, and the Cardinals, despite their recent slump, are the most dangerous team they have faced in a while. Our Terence Watson and Tom Ryle try to sort out what it all means.
Terence: The Dallas Cowboys are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now and thanks to this defense they’ve been able to give this Cowboys offense more opportunities to right the ship on that side of the football. Those extra reps look to be paying off with the Cowboys offense exploding last week on the Washington Football Team. Many believe this is due to the poor quality of their opponent but I’m not so sure it is. Just take a look at what the Cowboys have had to deal with recently, losing players and coaches to COVID, injuries to their starting and backup running backs, and their starting left tackle. Yet this team stayed together and was able to string together three wins before last week, just like two of the other teams they’ve been facing.
This late in the season is the time you want to see your team getting better and limiting mistakes and right now they’ve been able to do just that.
Tom: It’s great that the Cowboys are perhaps at their best, and the health of the roster is a big part of it. But I still get nervous when I look at who they have beaten lately. The New Orleans Saints, the New York Giants, and Washington all faced Dallas with beaten up and depleted rosters. It still took until last week for the Cowboys to really put things all together.
The game against the Cardinals will be the best measuring stick of the latter part of the season, disrespect intended for the Philadelphia Eagles. Yet they also are not in great health. They have lost DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt to injured reserve. Both are sorely missed, and they have several other key players that are either already ruled out or questionable. That’s why I’m confident Dallas gets a convincing win - and why I am not sure that will really tell us how ready they are for the playoffs. True, the Cardinals may show up as an opponent in the postseason, depending on how things shake out. They aren’t the concern. The big challenges are the Green Bay Packers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Los Angeles Rams. To get to the ultimate goal, the Cowboys will likely have to beat two of the three. And we won’t have any way to know if they are up to the task until they face those hurdles because they have been clearing the low bars of late.
Terence: That’s football, any given day now with injuries and COVID spiking again, something can derail a team's playoff chances in an instant. Teams just have to do their best to rally around each other and pick up the wins needed to get to the ultimate goal. The Cowboys during this stretch have faced some challenges from each team, Saints gave them an offense with a dual-threat quarterback, the Giants gave them a run focused offense and a talented defensive tackle, and the Washington Football Team fielded a hot offense with a mobile quarterback and a defensive front that is one of the best in the league. In all of those games, the Cowboys were able to handle these challenges to the point that in the last game that talent on the Washington Football Team defensive front started physically fighting each other out of frustration.
The Cardinals bring their own set of challenges even without Hopkins and Watt on the field. They still have physical offensive and defensive fronts that have been able to dominate the line of scrimmage during the season, and they have the most mobile quarterback in the league whose ability to buy time with his legs gives them the ability to make plays down the field. They also have two running backs just like the Cowboys. James Connor is their Ezekiel Elliott as he is their battering ram used to punish teams, and Chase Edmonds is their Tony Pollard, the speedster who can take the rock to the house on any play. This is just another challenge the Cowboys will have to face, and like you said, this will be the most balanced team they face during this stretch, but as long as they play together and keep the same energy they will take this confidence into the playoffs with them.
Tom: I’ll give you the advantages the health of the team gives Dallas. They look to be heading into the game with no one on the injury report They almost made it to the game with backup DT Quinton Bohanna the only COVID addition that seems to have any impact at all, but Keanu Neal tested positive for the second time this season and now joins him.
As you mentioned, however, health is precarious and injuries can happen at any moment. They have no real control over that. The postseason may come down to how well the string of luck holds up.
You also bring up a good point as to getting a feel for this team, and that is the matchup between the lines, both ways. One of the issues for the Cowboys offense was the uneven and often bad play of the line. That seems to have been settled with the return of Connor Williams to the starting left guard job, and now Tyron Smith is set to be back after missing a couple of games. If they can protect Dak Prescott and open some holes in the running game, it will bode well going forward. Similarly, this should give us a good idea of how their ferocious pass rush will fare against a team that has not seen their own offensive line so badly gutted, although they also face a big loss with D.J. Humphries now in the protocol.
The picture will still be a bit incomplete, because the Cardinals are clearly struggling in the last stretch of the season, a now yearly tradition for them. A blowout win would be quite reassuring, but if this is a one-score game, it will leave some uncertainty, even assuming Dallas wins. I am in that boat, but want to reserve judgment on how ready they are for the playoffs until the final score.
Terence: I understand your apprehension with this team heading into the playoffs. We’ve been burned in the past by this team but this season just feels different. The defense heading into the playoffs is in a different place confidence-wise, they are playing with just as much energy as they had at the beginning of the season and that’s something we’ve not seen out of this team at the end for a very long time. If they are able to stay healthy, they have talent and playoff coaching experience to get them to the top of the mountain once again.
Their main focus right now though should be to continue building momentum on offense and win out the rest of the season, then use that talent and coaching experience going forward in the playoffs.