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What the Cowboys face as they head into the start of the NFL playoffs

The first goal has been met, now the Cowboys must keep it going.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Bring it on.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-2022 NFL season is over for eighteen teams. Not for the Dallas Cowboys. They have made the playoffs. It is now win or go home time.

This is an unusual week, and not only because it has been a couple of years since we could talk about a playoff game. The season-finale against the Philadelphia Eagles was a lopsided affair in more ways than one. That makes analyzing the blowout win irrelevant to a large degree. Instead, we’ll look forward for the Cowboys.

This team earned that three seed

There has been a fair amount of criticism of the Cowboys for having played a weak schedule and losing games to strong playoff contenders along the way. Indeed, they totally beat up on their division rivals. That includes the “our starters against their scrubs” exercise in getting the team tuned up for the wild card round. But if you don’t consider that, they still completely dominated their NFC East rivals, including a 41-21 thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first meeting of the season. They have no control over the fact that the rest of the division consists of a middling Eagles team that still made the playoffs, and two raging dumpster fires. Furthermore, beating up on a weak division was part of a very successful formula for most of two decades for the New England Patriots. It worked pretty well for them.

And while they had one completely baffling flop against the Denver Broncos, their other four losses were all to playoff teams. In addition to Philadelphia, they also notched a win over the Patriots, who also are still playing this weekend. And they beat two other teams in the Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints who (barely) had winning records.

Yes, they have some flaws. How long they keep playing depends largely on how much they have done to correct those. But they absolutely deserve to be here.

Avoiding Lambeau Field in the divisional round is big

While the Super Bowl is the obvious goal, Dallas has not even reached the NFC conference championship since their last Lombardi Trophy after the 1995 season. Getting back to that is going to be easier since that three seed means that is the first game where they can face the one seed Green Bay Packers in their home stadium.

Unless you have just started following the team, you are well aware that their recent history against the Packers in the playoffs has not been good. Green Bay ended two promising years after the 2014 and 2016 seasons. If Dallas can get past the San Francisco 49ers at home this Sunday, they will either get to play the divisional game in considerably warmer weather against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or would host the Eagles if they should upset Tom Brady and company. (If you have some decidedly mixed feelings about that latter possibility, join the club.) There would even be a chance that the Packers could get upset by the winner of this week’s matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams.

That is a lot of ifs and ands. But the path back to the championship game is now much easier than it would have been. That game is still most likely going to be at Green Bay. One aspect of the much debated decision to play the starters at Philadelphia was that it did give them a game in freezing conditions. It might be helpful experience.

There is no unbeatable team

Here at BTB, we focus on the Cowboys. And that means that sometimes we get overly focused on our own problems. As mentioned, there are concerns, particularly about the run defense and whether the offense can be consistent. But every team this year has some flaws. The first opponent, San Francisco, is very good at running the ball, but Jimmy Garoppolo has turned the ball over fifteen times, an average of exactly one for each game he has played in. Dallas has thrived on turnovers this season. A good strategy for beating them is to force them out of the run by getting a lead and forcing Garoppolo to put it up a lot. That will of course be on the offense, but if Kellen Moore can put Dak Prescott and his teammates in a position to succeed, they have shown the ability to do so.

It is still going to be a real challenge, because the Niners have one of the best defenses statistically in the league, stout against both the run and the pass. Of course, the Cowboys are one of the best offensively, particularly throwing the ball. It will be strength against strength.

Besides, a little context is important. We are down to the fourteen most successful franchises in the league. Of course we expect to see most if not all of them in the upper half statistically. What is most important is how they compare. The Cowboys have the edge on offense, and their league turnover margin could be the key defensively.

Dallas can beat any team in the league when they are playing their best, but will struggle if they don’t. Just like everyone else still alive.

The coaching watch

Black Monday has come and gone, and there are now six open head coaching jobs in the NFL. While we want to focus on the game ahead, being a playoff team means that the Cowboys have a couple of coordinators that are now on the radar of teams needing to fill their vacancy. And they are sniffing around. In at least one case, for both.

While both Moore and Dan Quinn are in a very good situation in Dallas, the allure of a head coaching job is unquestioned. Quinn may arguably be the most vulnerable target given his background and the tendency of NFL front offices to go with experience. But Moore has that new-face cachet.

The further the Cowboys make it in the playoffs, the more attractive both become. Conversely, some teams will probably not want to wait to make a hire, although that doesn’t mean they can’t get something lined up with one of the Dallas candidates even while they are still alive. There are rules, and there is how things get done.

No matter how well, or badly, the Cowboys fare going forward, this is something we will have a nervous eye on. Watching and waiting is all we can do.

Enjoy the week

For now, though, we can take satisfaction in where Dallas is. It is always better to be in the playoffs than on the outside looking in and getting those mock drafts ready.

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