At this point in the season, Cowboys fans must be tired of reading about potential trap games. The Cowboys have just two regular-season games left before the playoffs, and still have an outside chance at entering the postseason as NFC East winners. They need to beat the Titans and Commanders to have any chance, but this week’s game against Tennessee comes with a rare break.
The Titans are still without starting QB Ryan Tannehill, turning to rookie Malik Willis instead, but could rest other starters in a game that’s meaningless to their postseason chances. The Titans are already locked into a winner-take-all regular season finale with the Jaguars, needing just to escape Thursday night football with no further injuries. Sure, Mike Vrabel’s team would like to take momentum into this play-in game with a win against an NFC contender, but the same goes for a Cowboys team fresh off a rivalry win versus the Eagles.
This game will complete the Cowboys matchups with the AFC South this season, in which the previous three were billed as trap games, coming consecutively before the Eagles game on Christmas Eve. The Cowboys turned a tight game against the Colts into a fourth quarter blowout in Week 13, narrowly escaped the Texans at home the following week, then lost on the road in overtime to the Jaguars to take division hopes out of their own hands. Whether it was fair or not to call any of these trap games is in the past now, but the Cowboys certainly haven’t seen a team with less to play for against them then the Titans this week.
It’s still a short week for the Cowboys too, playing on the road Thursday after hosting the Eagles on a Saturday. After a streak of significant injuries in the previous weeks, the Cowboys reported no injury concerns coming out of their emotional win over the Eagles. If the Eagles game wasn’t fully convincing that the Cowboys are back to early-season form, this is another chance for Dallas to get reps against one of the more disciplined teams in the league.
The Titans will test some of the weaknesses the Cowboys have shown late in this year, with a power run game, mobile quarterback similar to Trevor Lawrence, and run defense that ranks second in the league giving up just 80 yards a game. There should be no shortage of motivation for Mike McCarthy’s team to treat this like a playoff game, and continue a pattern of alternating wins and losses against the Titans that goes back to 2010. The Cowboys have a narrow 8-7 all time lead in the series, losing the last meeting at AT&T Stadium 28-14.
The most notable thing from the last meeting, on Monday Night Football meeting in week nine in 2018, was Amari Cooper making his Cowboys debut. The Cowboys were off a road loss to Washington, coming off a bye, and ready to admit their passing game wasn’t working in the early part of the season. Cooper scored the first touchdown of the game for the Cowboys, Allen Hurns tied the game at 14 in the second quarter, but a pair of Marcus Mariota touchdowns gave the Titans control in the second half.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith led the Cowboys in tackles that game, and the Cowboys are still sorting out the linebacker position currently without Vander Esch. Damone Clark and veteran Anthony Barr stepped up against the Eagles, and now face another tough test in the Titans.
The Cooper move was still the catalyst that season for Dallas to win the NFC East, and though it looks like the streak of no repeat winners since 2003-04 will continue, the Cowboys have faced similar challenges at WR this season and addressed them as recently as two weeks ago with the addition of T.Y. Hilton.
Hilton made two huge plays against the Eagles, drawing a fourth-down penalty and running down a go route on third and Arlington for his first catch from Dak Prescott. It was the type of separation and explosiveness the Cowboys were lacking before bringing in Cooper in 2018, and again this season as they’ve waited on Michael Gallup to fully recover. With 71 catches for 1,078 yards and six touchdowns in 18 career games against the Titans, this is the perfect game for Hilton to get more acclimated in the offense.
Mark Lane and I discussed if Hilton can make the same impact as Amari Cooper did on this week’s edition of Hidden Yardage, available every Monday on Spotify, Apple, and the Blogging the Boys podcast network.
The Cowboys won’t have the benefit of knowing what the Eagles result is on Sunday as they open Week 17 play around the league, but can help themselves build momentum and put pressure on a Philadelphia team that is possibly still without Jalen Hurts versus the Saints by taking care of business in Nashville.