The Dallas Cowboys have already won two of the games that constitute the toughest stretch of their schedule, the Seattle Seahawks and the Philadelphia Eagles. It has the Cowboys perched on the very cusp of making the playoffs, with no less than thirteen possible scenarios where they could make the postseason even if they lose to the Buffalo Bills.
There are multiple ways for Dallas to have at least a wild card slot sewn up before they even kick off in Buffalo. This is good news, but there are still things to think about heading into the game.
Avoid a letdown
While the Eagles and their fans always have more invested in their meetings than the Cowboys do, this was still one of, if not the biggest game for Dallas. That can lead to a bit of a letdown. And if that playoff spot should get locked up earlier in the day on Sunday, then the need to keep the pedal down against the Bills gets even less imperative.
Yeah, that does not need to happen. It always feels a little hollow when they back into the playoffs. It is much better to enter postseason with a full head of steam. Keep putting the best product on the field, because you need to be able to keep doing that once January rolls around.
Further, on Monday night the Eagles play the Seahawks. While the birds from the east are favored over their western cousins, there is absolutely a chance Philly could stumble. That opens up the door for the Cowboys to try and grab the NFC East playoff spot, and have a small shot at the bye. If Dallas loses, those both become nearly impossible.
The Cowboys needed the win over the Eagles. They don’t need the win over the Bills, but should really, really want it.
About the opponents so far
A lot is being made about how the Eagles are the only team Dallas has beaten that has a winning record. This is probably one reason why Buffalo is a slight favorite. People just don’t give much weight to the Cowboys’ victories.
Folks, this ain’t their fault. For an NFC team, opponents with a winning record are hard to find. Out of the sixteen conference teams, eleven are below .500. Given that only five games each year are against non-conference opponents, there just aren’t many quality opponents. And of the five AFC teams this season, it worked out that the two best, the Bills and the Miami Dolphins, came in December. Plus the best NFC team outside the Cowboys, the Eagles, and the San Francisco Giants is also coming late in the year as the Detroit Lions are the last home game in Arlington.
When you constantly come up against weaker teams, all you can do is take care of business. Dallas has done more than that, especially since the bye when Mike McCarthy led one of the most successful mid-season adjustments I can ever recall for any team. As BTB OG Rabblerousr said during the BTB roundtable this week, this also coincided with the offensive line finally getting healthy. Combined with an apparent willingness to listen to his players, most notably a disgruntled CeeDee Lamb, the head coach had the team coming out of the bye hitting on all cylinders. They didn’t just take care of business. For the most part, they ran away with games. In a latter half of a season where there are unfathomable upsets seemingly every week, that is notable. This year’s Cowboys are just a powerhouse.
It is ironic that, while the NFC overall looks much less impressive than the AFC where all but five teams have winning records and legitimate shots at the playoffs, it boasts two teams in Dallas and San Francisco that are thought to be the best in the league. The AFC has much less separation, and that is a bit pertinent for the Bills game. Their 7-6 record ties them with five other teams, but they are last when tiebreakers are used. For them, this is largely a must-win game. That makes them doubly dangerous, in addition to just being a pretty good football team that has had its share of bad luck. (See their loss to the Eagles.)
This is another game where Dallas needs to tend to business. Despite being underdogs, they hold an overall, if slight edge in talent, and McCarthy, Dan Quinn, and John Fassel are as good a trio of coordinators/play-callers (no disrespect to Brian Schottenheimer and the excellent work he does) as you can find.
If the Cowboys do win this one, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the postseason. And we are not going to entertain further discussion about the alternative.
The plan is coming together at the right time
Hannibal Smith would love it. (There was a movie, dagnabit, so that is not just me being an old fogey.) While things have been falling in place ever since the bye, some came along faster than the others. Dak Prescott was an obvious one, and so was Lamb. But other things have been gelling steadily over the last seven games, or finally becoming clear to observers.
Let’s start with something no one saw coming. Brandon Aubrey is a record setting field goal kicker, and that can be crucial when you get to closer games, such as Dallas is likely facing in the next three. This was something that had to emerge over time, but his performance last Sunday night made it glaringly obvious to even the most casual observer that he is something special. While placekickers can fall victim to sudden and inexplicable cases of the yips, he seems as resistant to that as any kicker, with the odd exception of missing the occasional extra point. But if he continues, even should he miss one down the stretch, he is still a great thing to have if the Cowboys are down three or less points or tied late in a game.
We have always known the defensive line was good, especially rushing the passer, but the secondary also seems to be solidifying. Stephon Gilmore did a good job limiting A.J. Brown, and of course DaRon Bland is still building a case to be DPOY. According to PFF, the entire back end of the defense had a great game last week, with Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson rated highly along with Gilmore. Even more striking was that Markquese Bell and Damone Clark were the bookends of the top five on defense for the Cowboys. There is very little depth at linebacker, but somehow Quinn just makes it work, and it turns out that even without Leighton Vander Esch, the LBs are doing just fine.
I’ve already mentioned how the offensive line got healthier after the bye, but would be remiss to not note the year Tyron Smith is having. He looks remarkably like he did in his prime years. Along with the rest of the line, he is providing Prescott good protection, and lately they also are clearing the way for some explosive runs.
Speaking of the ground game, last week had a little development. Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle had a pretty even split of 16 and 12 carries respectively, with KaVontae Turpin providing a splash play on a reverse. That is the pattern lately, getting solid if not spectacular production from the running backs along with using Turpin or Lamb in the running game. Also, Pollard was very involved in the passing game with seven catches on eight targets. In the West Coast offense, which McCarthy’s is based on, short passes to the backs like that augment the running game and get the ball into the hands of the backs to keep moving the chains.
Lamb is the undisputed number one target for Prescott, but the recent games have also seen the emergence of Jake Ferguson as his second most effective target. A big part of that is Ferguson’s aggressive running after the catch, which accounted for the bulk of his yards on Sunday. Brandin Cooks continues to be a solid if perhaps underused threat opposite Lamb, but another very encouraging development last game was the performance of Michael Gallup, who had his best game of the year. While he had only three catches, one went for 39 and another was a short touchdown grab. This seems to give Prescott five reliable options in the passing game, with Turpin and Jalen Tolbert also getting an occasional ball thrown their way. This is all good, and a big reason for the offensive explosions we see.
Still things to clean up
It certainly appears that the Cowboys will need all these good trends against a dangerous Bills team, but they also need to fix some other things. One is the number of stalled drives. Prescott himself pointed to this as an area of concern last Sunday. All defenses tend to stiffen up when the opponent gets into their end of the field, but the successful teams overcome that. Dallas did in the first half last week, but they can’t rely on having a big halftime lead in the next three games, and certainly not in the playoffs.
And then there is my feral peeve, penalties. The Cowboys were frankly lucky that the Eagles were even worse than them, because their own seven flags for 60 yards were simply too much. This has been one issue that has persisted all season. They cannot afford to gift any opponent with yards, especially the better ones. Buffalo qualifies as that. Part of this is aggressiveness, but false starts and offsides flags always are enraging. Dallas certainly has far too much of the pre-snap sloppiness.
Still, there is a lot more good than bad going into Week 15 of the season. It has been a very long time since the Cowboys got to the postseason three years in a row, which seems a certainty. That’s just the first step, though. A strong finish through the final four games would be a great launching point for a postseason run. We will find out if they might be able to do that, starting in Buffalo.