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Cowboys should embrace tough matchup with AFC East leading Dolphins in final big road test

We will know a lot about this Cowboys team after Sunday in Miami.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have won four in a row against the Miami Dolphins dating back to week two of 2007, and are 13-6 after a loss under Mike McCarthy. They are also 2-8 in their last ten games on grass and 3-4 on the road this season with wins against the Giants, Chargers and Panthers, both of which they’ll put to the test on Sunday in Miami. Adding a win to these statistical columns should be the least of the Cowboys’ worries though, as this Week 16 game needs to be an opportunity for McCarthy’s team to prove they can play against contending teams on the road.

It will effectively be Dallas’ last chance to do so, with only a home game against the Lions and road trip to the Commanders left after Sunday on the schedule, yet remarkably they’ll have a path to winning the NFC East regardless of their outcome against the Dolphins. Whether or not they can find motivation in still having a chance to host playoff games from AT&T Stadium is secondary to showing up to south Florida with their run defense getting off the plane - something they struggled mightily to do last week, giving up 266 yards on 49 attempts in a 31-10 loss.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

How the Cowboys handle a Dolphins offense leading the NFL in points per game (Dallas is second here) could be telling for more than just this week’s matchup, as they get a test against Mike McDaniel’s offense. McDaniel being under the coaching tree of Kyle Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers head coach that’s bounced the Cowboys from the playoffs in consecutive seasons, gives the Cowboys much more than just a chance to move on from the Bills loss on Sunday. With the 49ers currently holding the NFC’s number one seed again, any discussion about this Cowboys team being a Super Bowl contender has to start with how they would fare in a third straight playoff rematch against a team that already beat them 42-10 this season.

While Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle steal the spotlight for a Dolphins offense that presents the best vertical challenge of any in the league, McDaniel is just as willing to stick to his roots and run the ball. The Dolphins have run the ball only 28 less times all season than the 49ers, and are coming off a 30-0 win where lead back Raheem Mostert scored two touchdowns in a bounce-back effort against the Jets. The Dolphins also won the time of possession battle by nearly 13 minutes despite only rushing for 77 yards, making this another game the Cowboys own offense faces an uphill battle to do what they do best and control the game by building a lead through Dak Prescott’s arm.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Just one week removed from mentioning McCarthy’s offense in the same breath as both McDaniel and Shanahan after an emotional 33-13 home win against the Eagles, the Cowboys were quickly humbled on the road in rainy conditions at the Bills. Prescott’s MVP odds dropped after his lowest passing yards total of the season, and just second game without throwing a touchdown. With the other being the season-opening 40-0 blowout against the Giants, the importance of this Cowboys offense playing with the lead has been evident all season, especially on the road where they’ve averaged just 21.7 points per game compared to 39.8 at home. Whether this means airing it out and getting into a shootout against Tua Tagovailoa, or finding their ground game at this crucial point of the season, the Cowboys need to get back to their winning complementary style that’s escaped them in tough road games this season.

Dallas Cowboys v Miami Dolphins

The Cowboys were also counting on their quarterback being a difference maker the last time they played in Miami, all the way back in 2015. It was their defense providing the early lead on a Rolando McClain pick six, but QB Tony Romo threw a pair of touchdowns to Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant in his first game back from injury to snap a seven game losing streak in his absence. Bryant’s fourth quarter touchdown put the Cowboys ahead in a tie game, a lead they’d add to in the 24-14 win that amazingly kept playoff hopes alive at 3-7.

That Dallas team missed the playoffs when Romo got injured again against the Panthers on Thanksgiving just four days after the win against the Dolphins. This year’s Cowboys already know they’ll be back in the playoffs for the third year in a row, but having their spot clinched prior to last week’s kickoff in Buffalo doesn’t go very far in excusing their no-show performance in a huge spot. The Cowboys should welcome the fact they stay on the road to play the division-leading Dolphins at 10-4, not the 4-5 Miami team they drew in that 2015 win or the 0-2 team that came to Arlington in week three of 2019.

In that most recent Cowboys-Dolphins matchup, and Prescott’s only career start against the Fish, the Cowboys jumped out to an early 10-0 lead on Amari Cooper’s short touchdown in the first quarter and won 31-6. The Dolphins came into that game having lost 59-10 in week one to the Ravens and 43-0 to the Patriots, both at home, finishing the year 5-11.

There’s no doubt this Sunday is the most high-stakes Cowboys vs. Dolphins game in quite a while, with the Cowboys leading the all-time series by just one at 8-7.

Miami Dolphins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Dolphins will be in the playoffs under McDaniel for the second year in a row, something they haven’t done since 2000-01, the final two years of a five-year playoff streak that saw them fail to get past the Divisional Round once. The Cowboys will be in the playoffs under McCarthy for the third straight year, something they haven’t done since 1994-96, the final three years of a dynasty that saw them win the Super Bowl in 1995 - as well as back to back in 1992-93 during this streak too. This championship standard still exists around The Star, explaining how a coach like McDaniel can receive plenty of praise for the job he’s done with the Dolphins while another West Coast offense coach in McCarthy is still dealing with constant questions about being the right fit to get this team back to at least a NFC Championship game.

The Cowboys have done well all season to block out outside noise and focus on their own improvement as a team, something that will surely be tested this week with their loss being followed by a third straight Eagles loss on Monday night, and whatever outcome they get in the familiar spotlight of America’s Game of the Week on Sunday will be a defining moment for McCarthy and this mercurial 2023 Cowboys team.

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