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Loss to Cardinals could hang over Cowboys the rest of the season

The Cowboys loss in Arizona may hang over their heads a bit as the season rolls along.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There are rarely good losses in professional sports, but some certainly hurt more than others. The Cowboys had a bad one in Week 3 when they gave the Arizona Cardinals their only victory so far in 2023. That letdown will hang over Dallas for the rest of the season as they try to maximize their NFC playoff positioning.

While the Cardinals have been scrappier than expected this year, playing with backup QB Josh Dobbs and supposedly tanking going into 2023, Dallas is still their only win so far in seven games. The Cowboys were coming off two blowout wins over the New York teams and eyes were already moving past Arizona, and even New England, to a huge Week 5 meeting with the San Francisco 49ers.

Did Dallas get trapped by the Cardinals? It’s possible, but it’s also possible that missing three offensive line starters and reeling from CB Trevon Diggs’ injury just days earlier had a greater effect. They righted the ship the following week in a blowout win over the Patriots, before getting smoked by the Niners.

Dallas’ up-and-down play since Week 2 is a huge concern coming out of the bye and into the next two-thirds of the regular season. This Sunday’s game against the Rams is a great test as Los Angeles, while no pushover, hasn’t established itself among the NFC contenders so far this year. Will the Cowboys show they’re closer to the 49ers, Eagles, and Lions as conference frontrunners, or that they’re more of a middling team?

If that storyline wasn’t enough to make this Sunday matter, that early loss to the Cardinals only intensifies the need for victory. Dallas’s current 1-2 record in conference play is the worst of any NFC team currently qualifying for the playoffs, and even a few below them. While overall record is what matters most, that in-conference record can become crucial in deciding playoff seeding or even qualifying for wild card spots depending on how things go from here.

Losing to the 49ers in Week 5 was painful because of how soundly Dallas was beaten, the two playoff exits from 2021-2022, and the franchises’ longstanding rivalry. But in the end, it’s a loss than wasn’t unreasonable going into the year and often accounted for in season-long projections. Had it been their only loss so far this year, we would feel very differently about the Cowboys right now.

Even a loss to the Jets or Patriots as AFC teams wouldn’t have been as damaging. Some might argue that Dallas already got a freebie when they got Zach Wilson instead of Aaron Rodgers in Week 2, but would Rodgers have closed the gap in a 30-10 loss? That’s hard to say. But whatever gift they may have gotten that week, they squandered it the following Sunday in Arizona

Conjecture aside, the Cardinals loss had a tangible impact that now adds more pressure to the Cowboys’ upcoming schedule. We’re not talking so much about the games against the Eagles, which were always key to the season, but more about the Rams, Giants, Panthers, Seahawks, and Commanders. If Dallas could afford any bad days at the office in its conference games this year, they may have already worn out whatever cushion there was.

How much leeway the Cowboys have depends on what the rest of the NFC contenders do from here. But in the very real scenario where Dallas doesn’t catch the Eagles in the division, their claim on a wild card will heavily depend on how they perform in the less dramatic matchups on their schedule.

This Sunday, the Cowboys have to show they are a cut above the likes of the Rams and other average NFC teams. They’ve had an extra week to get healthy, rested, and hopefully work out some issues on offense. They enter the bulk of their season with some baggage thanks to that loss to Arizona, but they can mitigate that damage by handling business the rest of the way.

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