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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Dolphins game Is crucial - or not

Sunday’s game for the Dallas Cowboys is critical in both strange and obvious ways.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys need a strong performance from Dak Prescott, but that’s usually the case.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Following the highly disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Dallas Cowboys face the Miami Dolphins and are trying to get back on track after that messy train wreck of a game. This game is their last chance to play well on the road against a winning team. It is just about a must-win game.

Well, that is what Tom Ryle thinks. David Howman, not so much.

Tom: Whoa. You can’t seriously be saying this is not a huge game for the Cowboys, David, They looked like, well, stuff you find lying around cow pastures against the Bills. The defense was about as effective as wet tissue paper, the offense could hardly move, and they committed penalties at the worst times. If they don’t come out and play well, the universal take will be they have no chance in the playoffs - and how can you argue with that?

David: Let’s be honest, the universal take will be that the Cowboys have no chance in the playoffs regardless of what happens this week. The Cowboys don’t have a chance in the playoffs until they win a playoff game, and even then the new narrative will be that they can’t possibly beat the next team. The goalposts will always move for this team, which comes with the territory of being America’s Team.

The Dolphins figure to be a perfect team for such moving of the goalposts, too. Like the Cowboys, they’ve struggled to win on the road or against teams with good records. They both feature a quarterback who, for whatever reason, has an angry internet mob constantly ready to feast on their smoldering carcass the moment they make even the slightest mistake whilst ignoring every good thing they do in between their mistakes. Both teams even feature head coaches that call plays on offense with the initials MM, as well as highly respected defensive coordinators who used to be head coaches.

If the Cowboys win this game, it will be chalked up as just another example of the Dolphins not being able to beat anyone and, to some, another example of why Tua Tagovailoa isn’t a franchise quarterback. If the Cowboys lose this game, we’ll all hear endlessly about how the Cowboys can’t beat good teams on the road, how their defense still can’t stop a Shanahan offense, and how Dak Prescott needs to be burned in effigy before the football gods. There is no scenario where the Cowboys come out of this game having earned any shred of respect from talking heads across the country regardless of what actually happens between the lines on Sunday.

Tom: Well, I’m not talking about the goalposts. I am much more concerned about the mental aspects of the game.

While there are multiple things that happened last Sunday, it is easy to think that this was a big psychological letdown coming off the emotional win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The team just looked discombobulated in all phases. That is something that seems to happen to the Cowboys periodically - and very unfortunately. You can throw in their road struggles as another aspect of things. This is the last opportunity to shake some of those, and I think any continuation of what we just saw would not only show they still hadn’t gotten over the mental hurdles, Worse, it would leave a suspicion that they would just have the same issues as a wild card team.

They have to get this one right, and not just because they need to get it right on the field. While the odds are against it, there is still a chance the Eagles could stumble and leave the door open to win the NFC East. And that would let them open the playoffs at home, where they seem to be an entirely different team.

David: That’s actually the exact reason why I don’t think this game matters all that much, or at least not as much the Cowboys’ other two remaining games. As you mentioned, the Cowboys do still have a shot, though extremely slim, at winning the NFC East. That would be huge because of how great this team is on their home turf.

Thanks to the growing legend of Drew Lock, the Cowboys are still in first place in the division. But from here, the tiebreakers get... tricky, to say the least. In order of importance, the tiebreakers go: 1) head-to-head record, 2) division record, 3) record in common games, 4) conference record, 5) strength of victory.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole of all the possible scenarios here, the chance that this Dolphins game becomes meaningful for such a tiebreaker is very low. It’s a common game, yes, but with the Cowboys’ other two games against NFC opponents, while the Eagles only face NFC teams from here on out, those ones mean more for the potential tiebreaker madness that awaits. In short, it doesn’t really matter what the Cowboys do this Sunday so long as the Eagles lose at least one more game this year. If that doesn’t happen, well, it won’t even matter if the Cowboys win out and win each game by 30 points. That’s the tragedy of not controlling your own destiny. But as it relates to playoff seeding and the race for the NFC East, this game against the Dolphins is the least important game being played by an NFC East team the rest of the year.

Tom: That is an illustration of how we are looking at this through different lenses. I’m not thinking too much about possible paths to the NFC East crown. I’m primarily concerned about the way the Cowboys play in what is now their runup to the playoffs. They need to get themselves right after being so wrong against the Bills. They need to get through that apparent mental block they have on the road and show they still can flex their muscles. Even if they go on to smash the Detroit Lions and the Washington Commanders, a bad showing in Miami would leave a glaring flaw in a team that has almost no way to avoid road games in the postseason.

That is the crucial part of this particular game. Even a narrow loss would offer some hope if there were one or two things they could still fix. But if they lay another egg against the Dolphins, it is going to be hard to get this team to feel confident when they go into someone else’s house to try and advance in the playoffs. It looks like their most likely first opponent is going to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it looks like Baker Mayfield and company are getting hot at just the right time. Getting a win over Miami would be a huge boost for Dallas. I think they almost have to have that if this is going to be more than another desultory postseason.

David: Don’t get me wrong, I would love a win in Miami this week. But winning this game isn’t going to sell me on whether or not this team can win a playoff game on the road. In my mind, the only hope the Cowboys have of reaching the Super Bowl is getting homefield advantage. Even then, I’m not ready to believe they’d beat the 49ers at AT&T Stadium, because as good as they’ve been this year they’re still not on that level.

For me, everything is being viewed through the lens of playing as many playoff games in AT&T Stadium as possible. I like their chances of beating the Buccaneers, or any other NFC South team, on the road; after all, they did that just a year ago. But beyond that? I have very little confidence, regardless of what happens this week. It’s a bit of a “first seed or bust” mentality, for which the odds are getting smaller and smaller each week.

That said, winning cures all. And if getting a win in Miami gives this team the confidence to roll into the playoffs at full steam ahead like you’re suggesting, I will happily admit to being wrong.

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