The Dallas Cowboys 40-34 loss at the Jaguars on Sunday completely changed the outlook for the short week ahead, with Dallas hosting the 13-1 Eagles on Christmas Eve. Even with a playoff spot clinched by the end of the night game between the Commanders and Giants, the Cowboys most recent loss feels eerily similar to ones from a season ago, without the benefit of a commanding NFC East lead.
Instead, it’s the Eagles with the lead over the entire NFC now, playing for a chance to clinch the top seed from AT&T Stadium on Saturday. They may be doing so without starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, something that at least temporarily helps the Cowboys keep bleak division hopes alive. As for the bigger picture, this Cowboys team can now cautiously look towards the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07, and they should welcome the challenge of playing against a full strength Eagles team approaching the end of the regular season.
The only major difference from the Cowboys loss in Jacksonville that saw the offense play unimaginative and fail to make big plays when needed, and these similar losses from 2021, is the sense of urgency the Cowboys are now facing to fix problems on both sides of the ball. If the 2021 Cowboys earned the benefit of the doubt that they’d be a newly-inspired team come playoff time, just to bow out in the first round at home, this year’s team doesn’t have that luxury. With three weeks remaining and seeding to still play for, the Cowboys are back to answering questions about how they can get better play at WR, how to keep Dak Prescott upright, and allow less explosive plays on defense.
We broke down on this week’s episode of Hidden Yardage how the Jaguars loss, paired with another Eagles win on Sunday, should force the Cowboys to look inward this week, and why that’s exactly what they need. The Eagles have been the best team in the league this season in many categories, none more so than their ability to stick to what works for them and execute at a dominant level. Eagles opponents typically know what’s coming from an offense that pounds the ball behind a massive offensive line, or can air it out to a trio of great receivers, but are still helpless to stop it.
This is a style of play the Cowboys have tried to emulate in the past without the results, and bucking the trend early this season got them off to a hot start. For the first time in a while, the Cowboys had shown they can adapt, take opponents out of sync themselves, and then play to their weaknesses. With some of the pressure off the Eagles game, the Cowboys could have used this week of preparation to focus on their own schemes and adjustments, before seeing how it looked against a team that has done the same each week.
The Cowboys know what the Eagles are coming to Dallas to do. The Eagles know what to expect from the Cowboys. A week of preparation for a familiar opponent before testing themselves in the type of big game they still need to prove capable of winning would serve the Cowboys well this holiday week.
The Cowboys haven’t been completely stagnant with the lineup this week, as cornerback Kelvin Joseph was benched for DaRon Bland and Nashon Wright, while Jason Peters and Tyron Smith continue to rotate at right tackle. If the end result is a win against an Eagles team starting Gardner Minshew, it will only lead to another week of questioning how legitimate they really are.
Sure, the Eagles padded their record early in the season with the same types of games the Cowboys have found in this late season stretch, and nobody makes any apologies for the injuries faced near the end of a grueling 17-game schedule. All both teams can do is play who is in front of them, but knowing the Cowboys and Eagles will both be in the playoffs for some time, it remains Philadelphia with a better outlook for postseason success. The Cowboys have time to prove otherwise, but without a head-to-head win against Hurts, it will take a string of bounce back performances against the Titans the following week and the Commanders to end the season.
For as much praise as the Cowboys front office has earned for proving they had a plan this offseason when churning the roster, they find themselves facing the loudest question of the offseason in the peak of a playoff push. A glaring need for more talent and speed at receiver makes it much easier to look past players like Dante Fowler and Jason Peters, additions who have helped but can only do so much if the offense remains limited. Not all positions impact the game equally, and the Cowboys are learning they have a QB that can keep them in any game while also seeing Prescott need more help around him.
CeeDee Lamb is clearly the Cowboys top receiver, averaging three yards of separation per route this season. On one hand, this number matches Jaylen Waddle, who plays in a Dolphins offense that’s seen receivers run free downfield all season. It’s also 60th among qualifying players though, with players like Nelson Agholor ranking ahead of Lamb.
The best news here may be that, even for December, the Cowboys don’t have to be a finished product on offense. T.Y. Hilton is a new addition at WR expected to make his debut against the Eagles, Odell Beckham Jr. remains a distant option, and James Washington and Michael Gallup have plenty of room to contribute more. There’s still pressure on Kellen Moore to make all of this work, needing to do something he couldn’t last year with fewer weeks to adjust this scheme and make his offense less dependent on Prescott playing hero ball.
If making the playoffs consistently is going to be the new standard in Dallas, they can’t back down from a challenge. Cowboys fans found themselves tired of this team hyping themselves up after wins against lesser opponents last year, deflecting blame after losses to equal or better competition, and failing to make the NFC Championship game for the 26th consecutive year. A win on Saturday if it is Minshew at QB for the Eagles gives the Cowboys a chance to build this false sense of confidence all over again.
The end of the regular season will be here before we know it, and the Cowboys would benefit much more from a litmus test game against Jalen Hurts than they can from looking to split the season series versus the Eagles where both teams played one game without their starting QB.
This much anticipated divisional game will still set the tone for Christmas Day with passionate fanbases in Dallas and Philadelphia, but it’s the Cowboys that find themselves with more to lose after failing to take care of business in overtime against the Jaguars.