Our recurring theme for 2023 has been trying to figure out the real nature of the Dallas Cowboys. After six games and a bye week to consider it all, we should have a pretty good idea.
Should, but don’t.
This team has been a true Jekyll and Hyde, blowing out some teams, failing rather miserably against others, and finally looking more or less NFL normal against the Los Angeles Chargers just before getting their week off. Waiting to see which Cowboys team actually shows up is not a new concept, but it is getting worked overtime this season.
Now they have eleven games to go to make the playoffs. Their 4-2 record is tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the fourth best in the NFC, and only the Philadelphia Eagles have less losses with just one. The surprising defeat of the San Francisco 49ers on Monday has unexpectedly thrust Dallas right back into the heart of the race for the number one seed in the conference while they were relaxing on their couches at home.
Prior to the start of the season, we thought the NFC looked rather weak as a conference, and with seven weeks in the books, that certainly seems correct. The Cowboys are only one of six teams in the NFC with a winning record, and just one sits at .500. That is nine other franchises with losing records so far. There is a path not only to the playoffs for Dallas, but for good seeding as well.
The remaining schedule starts out fairly easy before hitting a very tough December. Their first opponent out of the bye is the Los Angeles Rams, who have also been a bit up and down this year. It could be a lot like the Chargers game, but played at AT&T Stadium, which has been very successful for the Cowboys. It is a very winnable game, for what that is worth. This year, it is not worth much, as this has been one of the hardest years in memory to figure out much of anything.
We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
It looks like a favorable matchup. The Rams aren’t particularly imposing on the surface - they’re 16th in points scored this season and 14th in points allowed, so it may be fair to say they look average - but the Cowboys need to come out and establish the fact that they aren’t taking Los Angeles lightly.
The Rams have scored just seven passing TDs this season, but they are moving the ball through the air - Matt Stafford currently ranks fourth in passing yards, and the Rams trail only the Lions for the highest number of 20+ yard completions this season with 31. While it might be easy to assume his diminutive, speedy wideouts (more on them in a bit) are boosting those numbers with short catches and YAC, consider Stafford actually ranks higher among QBs based solely on air yards thrown (third), and leads the league in average completed air yards at 7.4 per, according to Next Gen Stats. Cowboys corners will need to be mindful of his desire to push the ball downfield - but also, his propensity to give opposing defenses an opportunity when attempting to do so.
The defense should have plenty of opportunities for splash plays in this contest. Stafford is tied for eighth in sacks this season, but ranks fourth in sack yards lost, suggesting he’s dropping deeper on a more consistent basis in hopes of hitting on a longer developing play. Not only that, but he is currently among the league leaders in throws classified as “bad” or “poor” (full disclosure here - different websites have different classifications of what constitutes a “bad” or “poor” throw, but Stafford was consistently among the top 3 regardless of the source). Bottom line - sack and takeaway opportunities should be there in bunches, and the ‘Boys need to take advantage in both areas.
The breakout of rookie wideout Puka Nacua - alongside the already formidable Cooper Kupp - is the biggest reason it will be difficult to replicate what the Cowboys defense did to this Rams team a season ago. Kupp was virtually unguardable in their previous matchup - 7-for-125, including a 75-yard TD - and Nacua nearly looks like a carbon copy. If the Cowboys don’t generate pressure on Stafford and force some turnovers, look out. This is a big game for Jourdan Lewis.
It’s a game that must be taken seriously. It still looks like a winnable one to start the team off for the rest of the way, and they really need to get the victory. But almost every week there are multiple surprises. Dallas has been on the wrong end of one of those, the unexpected loss to the Arizona Cardinals. They have also benefited from upsets. Just a couple of weeks ago it was looking like the Eagles and 49ers were going to just roll until they met in the NFC Championship game. But they have lost three of their four combined games played since then.
The current situation calls to mind another NFL cliché, the ability to control your own destiny. Cliché or not, that is exactly where Dallas sits. After the Rams, they face the first of their two games against Philadelphia. Win those two, and no matter what else happens in the rest of the NFL, they will be tied in the loss column for the number one seed. The Eagles are a tough team to figure out, though. They can look very good. They also have struggled a bit in games that should have been easier and of course dropped the one to the New York Jets. The real takeaway is that they can be beaten if you play a good game against them.
If the Cowboys can stack those two wins up, they face what looks like the easiest stretch of the entire schedule, with the New York Giants, the Carolina Panthers, and the Washington Commanders all having losing records. The Panthers have yet to win a game, which would make them the easiest one to predict a Dallas win. But if you happen to glance at the standings, you’ll notice the team just ahead of them, with only one win. That’s the Cardinals, and we all know who they got that lone victory against.
That is a five game stretch where the Cowboys really need to go 4-1 or better. Not only are these mostly teams they should be able to beat, with the Eagles the one obvious challenge, it just gets harder after that. Let’s assume they do win four of the five and get to 8-3. That should make getting to the playoffs an easy cruise, right?
Well, maybe not so much. They end November with the Seattle Seahawks, who also sit at 4-2 entering this weekend. Then they have Eagles II, the Buffalo Bills, the Miami Dolphins, and the Detroit Lions. The Bills currently have the worst record in that quartet at 4-3.
It is very likely the season finale against the Commanders is going to be a meaningless game, because December will decide the playoff fate for Dallas. The timing for the team is a good news/bad news thing. They have five more games to play that are hopefully less challenging. Mike McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense is more a work in progress than it should be. Dak Prescott is playing well despite the endless criticism. The problems they are having on offense seem to be more about getting everyone on the same page and the unwanted but not unexpected struggles the offensive line is having. That also fits under the same page category as the starters have only had two weeks to actually work together.
Dan Quinn deserves some scrutiny with the way the defense fell apart just like the offense in the big loss to San Francisco. The bye week has the entire 53-man roster looking healthy - those who are on it, as injured reserve is a growing list. Hopefully, they will quit adding to it and get one or two people back. Over time, however, things are certain to get harder as the long grind of the season takes its toll and the team has the short Thanksgiving week to contend with. They do get a long break two games later, but that takes them into December when depth is sometimes the most important factor.
It’s a challenging but not completely daunting road. It all starts with the Rams, however. We can look ahead, but the team really can’t. They must focus on winning now.