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Cowboys point/counterpoint: The importance of the Chargers game

Monday night is a massive game for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Chargers
Can the defense upend the Chargers?
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are in a slump. They sandwiched a win between their two losses so far this year, but it is pretty clear things are not going well for them. Now they face a Los Angeles Chargers team coming off their bye and having won the two previous games. With a 3-2 record, Dallas is already getting to the point they can barely afford another loss. The miserable performance last Sunday creates some big stakes for this Monday night. Just how big? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle chew on that.

Tom: Is it being too dramatic to say this is a must-win game already? It feels that way to me.

David: It’s not dramatic at all, Tom. The Cowboys spent weeks talking up that San Francisco 49ers game as a measuring stick just to come out there and get ripped to shreds in every manner of speaking. They’re now beaten and battered, both psychologically and literally, with several long-term injuries to key players. The Cowboys have made a habit under Mike McCarthy of coming back strong from a loss, and they did it just a week ago. They’ll need to do exactly that this week to avoid heading into the bye as losers of three of their last four games.

Tom: But did they really come out that strong after the Arizona Cardinals loss? The score of the win over the New England Patriots looks a bit deceptive in hindsight. Two defensive scores, and just one touchdown and 13 points total in four trips to the red zone. That was after some serious red zone issues the previous week. Now we have seen them fail to even take a snap inside the opponent’s 20 for an entire game.

All of that fills me with concern against a team that has started to find some success in their last two games. And the Chargers are coming off their bye and welcome Austin Ekeler back to the lineup. This is shaping up to be a pretty good test for Dan Quinn’s defense. Kellen Moore might have a teensy bit of motivation to show out in this game with Justin Herbert.

If there is one place the Cowboys should be looking to do something more, it is against that L.A. defense. They are yielding the second most yards and ninth most points per game in the NFL. But even that may hide some problems for Dallas, as it sure looks like the Chargers get a bit more resistant once you get close to their goal line.

What worries the most is that this could turn into a shootout between the offenses, and last week, Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott were misfiring all the time.

David: I’ve been bullish on this offense all year, and remain so. Let’s not forget that this group ranked inside the top 10 in quite a few offensive categories prior to that 49ers game. And, yes, it was very bad against the 49ers, but the only offense that hasn’t looked terrible against San Francisco’s defense this year is the one coached by veritable genius Sean McVay, and even he couldn’t come out ahead in that one.

To your point, though, the Chargers defense has been awful this year. I like the Cowboys’ chances of getting back in a rhythm against this defense, and hopefully figuring out their red zone issues too after not getting a single shot last week. That’s just one more reason why this is a must-win game, though. If the offense comes out and plays great, it’ll be easy to acknowledge Sunday night’s game for what it was: the 49ers defense doing what they do best.

But if McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense can’t bounce back against such a bad defense, especially when the guy he replaced is on the other side of the field, then it will officially be time to sound the alarm in Dallas. The optics of McCarthy calling a bad game while Moore calls a great one will be bad enough, but the failure to score against a defense that loves giving up points will be disastrous. And taking that kind of bad juju into the bye, with players having to sit with all that disappointment for a full two weeks before getting another shot to play, could prove fatal in the locker room.

Tom: Yeah, I’m very concerned about the mentality of this team. I don’t know how much is mental lapses on the field, misunderstanding their assignments, or just letting the other team get into their heads, but this year’s Cowboys just look off in that part of the game.

I do agree that if they can’t get something going against this defense, we are headed for DEFCON 1 for this season. A failure to move the ball against the Chargers would make it hard to imagine them doing so against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Detroit Lions, or a couple of other teams coming down the pike.

I’m just as concerned about offering some real resistance against their offense. They are averaging 389 yards and 27.5 points per game. Moore may not be the mastermind that Kyle Shanahan is, but we know he is able to find a way to put some points up. If the defense does not find a way to keep things under control, then the same concerns apply for them as for the offense when you look at the rest of the schedule.

Which comes back to the original point: Is this a must-win game, and just how bad is it if Dallas loses?

David: On one hand, it’s easy to say that this is still a very young season. The Super Bowl is not played in October, and in fact eight of the last 23 Super Bowl winners started their year out 3-2, where the Cowboys currently find themselves. Dropping to 3-3 would be unfortunate, but it would by no means mark the end of the season.

On the other hand, it would be extremely hard to remain positive about this team with a loss on Monday. It’s already hard to feel good about them being anything more than an also-ran in the playoffs, since the road to the Super Bowl likely runs through San Francisco for any NFC team. Losing this game, especially with the Kellen Moore factor, could very well fracture this team’s psyche altogether.

And, sure, they have plenty of talent and can theoretically win any game they play. But the schedule only gets harder from here. You mentioned the Eagles and Lions, both of which will be tough opponents, but that’s not all. They come out of their bye against a surprisingly scrappy Los Angeles Rams team, they face a Seattle Seahawks team that’s won three straight, they play the Buffalo Bills there in the middle of December, and then the week after that they’ve got the red hot Miami Dolphins. And that’s without even mentioning the Washington Commanders, who look kinda good (?) this year and are 3-3 against Dallas under Ron Rivera.

With the talent this Cowboys team has, they should be able to win a good bit of those games and make the playoffs comfortably. But if they lose to the Chargers, and the team morale plummets, it won’t matter how talented they are against that schedule. It feels silly to say the whole season hinges on this Week 6 contest, but it really feels like it does.

Tom: That is sadly where I am. I think if they lose this game, it will not only mean any hopes of a championship will dissolve like the morning mist, it will make it extremely difficult to even make it to the playoffs.

It makes me wonder if we badly overestimated the talent of this team, and that includes the coaches. This is a crucial test. We didn’t see this turn of events coming, not like this. Now we can just wait nervously to see how this one goes.

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