The good news is that the Dallas Cowboys are going to the playoffs for the second year in a row, something they have not done in fifteen years. The bad news is they have to go on the road to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady, a quarterback who has never been on the losing end of the score when playing Dallas. The terrible news is that the Cowboys are coming off their worst game of the entire season. Despite playing many starters, nothing really worked for them all game. They looked totally unprepared for that game - or a playoff run.
If the team doesn’t want another one-and-done playoff experience, they have to “flip the switch.” They have to get better blocking from the offensive line, reestablish an effective running game, Dak Prescott has to shake off an historically bad performance, the receiving corps has to become more than CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz carrying the load, the pass rush has to be found from wherever it has been hiding, the run defense must be shored up, the depleted secondary has to find answers, special teams must not turn the ball over...
You get the idea. This is a tall order. Can they do it? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle consider the chances.
Tom: You would think Mike McCarthy and his staff would be pulling out all the stops to get this done. The head coach has to be aware of the media prattling about his job security and both Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn are fielding interview requests for vacant head coaching jobs around the league. All of them clearly benefit from finding a way to win this game.
I just worry that this is a bridge too far. With so many issues laid bare in Washington, it is hard to get all of them fixed. Some help appears to be on the way with Leighton Vander Esch and Tyler Biadasz reportedly on track to return after being out with injury and Johnathan Hankins now eligible to return from IR. Those are good, but there are too many issues with players who have been on the field. Prescott’s struggles were frankly mystifying, although the chaos on the offensive line may have a lot to do with his obvious skittishness in the pocket. The receiver corps is still going to need Noah Brown and Michael Gallup to make more contributions than they have of late and hopefully they will be able to use T.Y. Hilton more effectively and more consistently, but that is hardly assured. And the biggest concern for me is Brady versus the defensive backs. Trevon Diggs is good and DaRon Bland has vastly outplayed his draft position, but the third corner for nickel packages, the most commonly used by the Cowboys, is an open question. Nahshon Wright, Trayvon Mullen, Xavier Rhodes, and Kelvin Joseph are the available bodies, but all would worry me as Brady surveys the coverage. He is going to look for the most vulnerable place to attack. Unfortunately he is very, very good at doing that. I just can’t look at this game with any confidence that this issue will be fixed, and all the others are still questionable as well. I hate to say it, but I am not really confident Dallas can win this one.
David: Honestly, I’m not confident that the Cowboys can win this game either, but that’s just because when it comes to the idea of beating Tom Brady in the playoffs, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” But when I’m not channeling Morgan Freeman, and just looking at this game from an objective standpoint, I really do like the Cowboys’ chances.
I can’t put too much stock in that Commanders game, because it was pretty obvious that Dallas was using it more like a preseason game as it related to their game plan. I mean, Dak Prescott only had three play-action dropbacks despite being seventh in the league since returning from injury. And the rookie duo of Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot played just a fraction of their normal snaps. Then Dan Quinn was experimenting with Trayvon Mullen on the outside and Tyler Coyle in the slot. It seems clear to me that this was not a “win at all costs” game plan.
Furthermore, we haven’t really seen the Cowboys actually flip the switch much at all in recent games. They’ve been cautious and conservative in many of their games throughout December and January, most of which have come against vastly inferior opponents. I’d argue the last time we saw this team actually flip the switch was that game against the Vikings, a game which several players described as a playoff approach leading up to it. Do we remember how that one turned out?
Tom: That whole thing about the way the coaches approached the Washington game is both a concern and a place for some hope. It does seem to indicate that they really didn’t believe the New York Giants had any real shot against the Philadelphia Eagles and they were more concerned about trying out some stuff versus the Commanders. And possibly they didn’t have Prescott doing a lot of play-action to protect him physically and because they too realized how shaky things were with the offensive line, as well as what appears to be a lack of trust between the quarterback and Connor McGovern at center. Still, basically giving up on a game is not something that has to feel good for the players. Perhaps that affected them. In any case, the results were far from what they probably expected.
Now there is a concern about a mental hangover from that horrible beatdown. This is going to require a tremendous amount of resiliency, and that extends to a game where they are likely to get punched in the mouth more than once. The Buccaneers have had their issues at times, or they wouldn’t be going into the playoffs as a sub .500 team. That is another reason for hope.
But Brady and the Bucs have shown an ability to play well in the limelight, and this is going to be one of the highly watched games of the first round, possibly the most. That is something the Cowboys have yet to demonstrate. Last year was quite the opposite. It is just one more thing McCarthy has to overcome if they are to have any hope of winning this. Call me guardedly pessimistic.
David: All season long, the Cowboys have excelled at picking themselves back up after a disheartening loss. When Tampa Bay dominated them in Week 1 and knocked Prescott out for a significant period of time, the team knocked off the Bengals (a win, by the way, that looks better and better now). When the Eagles pierced the armor of Cooper Rush, Dak came back and led the team to a big win over the Lions (another win that looks good now). The Vikings game was in response to the overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers, while the overtime loss to the Jaguars led to the Cowboys getting revenge on the Eagles.
The point is this team hasn’t lost back-to-back games all year, and they’ve often played their best ball coming off a loss. Now, they’re coming off their worst loss of the year and needing to play their best ball. This just seems like a tailor-made situation for the 2022 version of these Cowboys, and it couldn’t have lined up much better for them on that end.
Tom: I absolutely hope you are right. The arc of the season does offer encouragement that the team can get a win over Tampa Bay and just maybe have a special run. However, the longer history of the team is far less encouraging. The flop against the San Francisco 49ers a year ago is still fresh in the memory of so many players and coaches. They have to take a step up to avoid another depressing finish.
That’s the task ahead. I applaud your positivity, but as I have all year, I am going to try and maintain a wait and see attitude. Show us this is not the Cowboys of the past quarter of a century.