Things feel good for the Dallas Cowboys. They easily handled what was a bit of a must-win game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and now are so close to making the playoffs they can reach out and touch it. (The New York Times playoff predictor has them with slightly better than a 99% chance of making the postseason.) With thirteen possible ways for them to make the playoffs even should they lose this Sunday, many of which could play out before they even take the field against the Buffalo Bills, this game is not really that important.
Or is it? David Howman and Tom Ryle want to examine that.
David: Of course this game is important! Aside from general coachspeak platitudes about the next game being the most important, this game is crucial for the Cowboys’ playoff hopes. I mean, we know the Cowboys are making the playoffs - the amount of catastrophic events that would have to happen for them to miss it completely are too many to list - but this isn’t about making the playoffs.
The Cowboys aspire to win the Super Bowl, and the odds of doing so are significantly better if a team wins their division. Having to play every playoff game on the road makes the journey that much more difficult. In fact, over the last 15 years there have been exactly two teams to even reach the Super Bowl after playing every playoff game on the road: the 2020 Buccaneers and the 2010 Packers.
One of those teams had Mike McCarthy as the head coach, and he would surely attest to how difficult that run was. The other team was led by Tom Brady, maybe the greatest quarterback to ever do it. Getting to the Super Bowl as a perpetual road warrior isn’t impossible, but it’s very hard to do. And if the Cowboys lose on Sunday, their chances of winning the NFC East drop from 30% to 20% before factoring in what the Eagles do this week.
Tom: Yes, but there is the unavoidable truth that if Philadelphia wins out, it doesn’t matter how many games the Cowboys win going forward. If Dallas wins only one or two of their final games, they likely wind up as the fifth seed anyway, and could conceivably drop all four and still sit in that spot. While there are certainly other reasons a win is preferable, the question is how important is this game, really? The odds are quite small it will have any effect on the Cowboys’ playoff positioning at all. Should the Seahawks upset their fellow fowl-branded team on Monday, things change rapidly, and a loss for Dallas on Sunday would be a blown opportunity. Still, when your odds of winning the division stand at 31%, per that New York Times playoff predictor, you have to face the reality this is not that significant a deal in the moment. Until circumstances return a degree of control to the Cowboys, this may be a time to focus on getting things as right as possible while protecting the health of the roster.
Is a win desirable? Absolutely. It would put Dallas in a position to capitalize on something like a possible emergence of Tommy DeVito as an elite quarterback. Is it necessary at this point? I just don’t think so. That DeVito scenario is obviously with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Getting to the playoffs is the first task here, and that may not hinge at all on the Buffalo game even before it kicks off.
David: The issue this week is that we won’t know the potential implications of what the Cowboys do until Monday night. As you said, if they lose to the Bills and then the Eagles lose to the Seahawks, it’s a missed opportunity. So the Cowboys need to act as if the Eagles have already lost and treat this as a must-win game. To go back to the coachspeak, control what you can control; the Cowboys don’t control what happens on Monday night, only how they play on Sunday in Buffalo.
There’s more at stake beyond playoff seeding, though. Mike McCarthy has often referred to December games as a playoff simulation, meaning he wants his team to perform as if it were already the playoffs. Obviously, the Cowboys wouldn’t face the Bills in the playoffs unless they both reach the Super Bowl, a pairing that has to be pretty low on the odds of potential Super Bowl matchups right now.
Even still, showing that this team can go on the road to the northeast in December and win against a fairly good team is an important achievement ahead of the playoffs. Especially since so many are seemingly resigned to the notion of the Cowboys being locked into the fifth seed. If the Cowboys will be playing on the road for the duration of the playoffs, they need to prove - to themselves and everyone else - that they can win in hostile environments. That’s what this game will be, and why it’s important to treat it like a playoff game.
Tom: As I have said elsewhere, Dallas definitely wants to win this game. I still don’t think that proves they need to win it. Dealing with the environment in Buffalo is certainly something they benefit from, but they faced that in Philadelphia and played well in a game that could have gone their way with a couple of lucky bounces. They obviously cannot afford another performance like they had against the Arizona Cardinals, but that was before the major adjustments during the bye week. To me, a must-win game involves severely hurting or outright losing your shot at the postseason, and there is no way this qualifies.
Don’t misunderstand me. I also want the Cowboys to win, badly. Despite the old saying about learning more from your failures than your successes, the benefits of winning are clearly greater. I just don’t see this as a major problem if they don’t get the win. There is the possibility of a little letdown after beating the Eagles, the weather might be wet and lead to some freak turnovers, Josh Allen might go all Superman while Prescott has an off day - there are lots of things that could lead to a loss without revealing any real issues.
This may be a semantics argument more than anything, but I still feel this is a nice to win game much more than an absolutely necessary one. Frankly, if they can go 3-1 through the last four games, given that three are on the road, the Miami Dolphins are up after the Bills, and the last home game is against a feisty Detroit Lions team that may be battling to win its own division, I will count that as a success. Winning out is great, but the odds, frankly, are against it.
David: The odds may be against it, but the odds are also against the Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. Despite being tied for the best record in the NFL right now, Dallas is tied for just fifth best odds of winning the title game, with the 49ers and Eagles way ahead of them. The two teams immediately behind them in odds are the Bills and Lions, and they’re tied with the Dolphins.
Coincidentally, those are their next three opponents. If the Cowboys are going to be a Super Bowl team, they’ll have to beat the odds, and what better way than by beating the teams they’re clustered next to in Super Bowl odds? We know they can beat the Eagles, but that’s not all they have to do in order to reach the big game. I don’t know if the Cowboys can win out with this schedule, but I do know that the way they play these next three is going to tell us a whole lot about this team’s ceiling come playoff time.