Both the Dallas Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans come into tonight’s game with a chance to still win their divisions. However, Tennessee is in a position to control their own destiny, while Dallas can only get the NFC East crown if they win both their last two games and the Philadelphia Eagles lose out. Even with the chance that Jalen Hurts will be held out until the playoffs, that last thing seems very unlikely given the strength of the rest of the Philadelphia roster and their last two opponents, the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants. The odds are almost overwhelming that the Cowboys are going to be the fifth seed and play whoever represents the NFC South in wild card round.
That makes this game less significant for Dallas. But oddly, it is actually meaningless for the Titans. No matter if they win or lose, their path to make the playoffs is to win their final game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Whoever comes out on top in that one represents the AFC South no matter what happens this week. They are hoping to get injured starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill back for that game after ankle surgery, but the Cowboys will face backup Malik Willis, who had a poor outing in the loss to the Houston Texans.
We discussed this game and our predictions for it on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Already, Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel is talking about resting players against Dallas to focus on winning that last game. They have a long, long injury report including Derrick Henry being listed as doubtful and caution may be the most logical approach to deciding who actually plays. The Cowboys are in much better shape, with no reported injuries during the win over the Eagles, but Leighton Vander Esch has been ruled out and Tony Pollard might be better served with a week to heal a bit more.
Taking all this into account, Dallas has to figure out their priorities. They still should be looking to win the game of course, but they have to also try to get ready for the playoffs. There are certainly issues that have become evident over the past three games that need work. Here are some of the most evident.
Try to revitalize the pass rush
There once was a TV program called Unsolved Mysteries, and the abrupt disappearance of the once vaunted Cowboys pass rush would have made an excellent episode. Our Dan Rogers has looked for possible explanations, but it remains to be seen if they will come up with any answers. The Titans are an opportunity to get some of the mojo back. However, Sam Williams and Dorance Armstrong are still dealing with past injuries and now Micah Parsons has cropped up on the injury report with a hand problem. Just as Tennessee is considering, Dallas may want to be a bit circumspect in how they deal with them.
The running game has also taken a step back
This has been more up and down, but it certainly was absent against Philly. And Tony Pollard is another major component of the team on the injury report. The Cowboys’ offense depends on the ground game. If it isn’t working, they fortunately have a very potent pass attack to take up the slack.
Maybe the team would be better served with a more pass-centered approach. But that has not been something they are willing to do. During the last game, the Eagles repeatedly were waiting for the run on early downs. And they stuffed them almost every time. Despite that, Kellen Moore stuck with the run, resulting in the team being behind the sticks. It was only through a truly superb performance by Dak Prescott for most of the game that Dallas was able to prevail.
It will be good to get the running game going tonight, but it may be wiser to give Pollard a bit of a break to try and have him ready for when it could be much more important. That would put the load on Ezekiel Elliott, with Malik Davis taking up the slack. Fortunately they are quite capable of handling business. Still, this is another place where we need to see some better performance to help tune up for those postseason games.
Get T.Y. fully engaged
He only saw two passes thrown his way, but the impact of T.Y. Hilton was hard to miss in his debut wearing the Star. On the first, he drew an illegal contact flag to convert a fourth and eight. The second was the beautiful 52-yard completion on 3rd and 30. Both kept drives alive that turned into touchdowns.
Hilton just had 12 snaps in that game as the team worked him into the offense. Going forward, that is certainly going to change.
T.Y. Hilton is officially "out of the ramp-up phase" — per MM — the #Cowboys looking to fully unleash him going forward based upon each week's gameplan.— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) December 26, 2022
His 52-yard reception on third-and-30 and the penalty drawn on Darius Slay on his first target were critical plays vs. PHI.
Hilton was signed to boost the receiving corps. If those two plays are any indication, that is exactly what he is going to do. He stretches the field and provides a genuine deep threat. Perhaps more importantly he helps open up other targets. With CeeDee Lamb already having the best season of his young career, Dalton Schultz and the rest of the tight ends reliable targets for keeping drives alive, Pollard a good threat out of the backfield, and Michael Gallup hopefully getting back to his old self, an already strong passing game could become truly formidable. This game and the next are truly chances to get things clicking. And if they do, then winning should not be a problem.
See how the new look secondary holds up
The team has been forced to press DaRon Bland and Nahshon Wright into service as starting cornerbacks. Bland’s performance can only be called impressive, with five interceptions to tie for second in the league. Wright had an impressive debut as a starter against Philadelphia, credited with two passes broken up while leading the team in tackles. The safeties have been solid all year, especially Donovan Wilson.
A surprising issue cropped up against the Eagles, however, as Trevon Diggs just looked bad. He was beaten twice in embarrassing fashion. This was not at all what we are accustomed to seeing. He has to get back to his usual self. Having to face a backup quarterback should not stress him much. If he looks bad again, though, we will have a whole new concern to stress us.
This is sadly more a wish than something the team can do much about short of resting players extensively. They might look at that for the final game of the season if Philadelphia does beat the Saints and wrap up the number one seed this weekend. But they are less able to do so while they still have that slim chance of catching up. The best outcome tonight would be to build an early lead and then start pulling starters. That has not been the way it has gone the past three games. Again, we can only hope.