The Dallas Cowboys have dropped their last two games. This has made their chance of getting a home game in the playoffs very remote, but with the various tiebreakers, the fifth seed is not only their most likely spot, it is the lowest they can wind up. That points toward playing the wild card round at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that has gotten hot lately behind Baker Mayfield. When you add in the Cowboys’ failure to beat any winning teams on the road, a certain degree of angst is more than understandable.
All is not doom and gloom, however. Their next game is back in the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium, where they have a 15-game winning streak. The opponent is not going to be an easy out. The Detroit Lions clinched the NFC North with a 30-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings over the Christmas weekend. They are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, which makes them a true challenge for Dallas. On the flip side, they are in the bottom third defending against the pass. That is an opportunity for Mike McCarthy to get the air game going. That of course also depends on Dak Prescott.
So much of the time, it does come down to the quarterback. You do have to factor in other things like the protection he gets from his offensive line. Against the Miami Dolphins, that was just bad, forcing Prescott to try and evade rushers and getting him sacked four times. He still did not throw an interception against the Dolphins, but he and Hunter Luepke botched a handoff just a few feet from the goal line that would loom large in the eventual two-point defeat. Against the Lions, Dallas has the better quarterback, but Jared Goff has had a very good season. He is third in the league in total yards, with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He and Prescott were drafted the same year, and this year have had very similar campaigns statistically. Prescott ranks fifth in yards, and has thrown 30 TDs with only seven interceptions.
We will all hold our breath until we find out if Tyron Smith is back for the Detroit game. His presence would be a tremendous help in giving Prescott the time to find his weapons like CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson. That looks to be crucial, as the Lions are stingy against the run but a good bit softer versus the pass. Given the struggles the Cowboys have had establishing the ground game, it is very likely this one will depend on a strong air attack for Dallas to prevail.
The trio of games on Christmas Day provided clear examples of how even a very good quarterback can have a bad day. The clearest example was Brock Purdy. He had inserted himself into the MVP conversation in leading the San Francisco 49ers to the top of the playoff standings in the NFC. But against the ferocious defense of the Baltimore Ravens he threw four interceptions in what was seen as a potential Super Bowl preview. It was simply a case of Ravens defensive coordinator Mike McDonald confusing Purdy into bad throws.
A player who has already won MVP honors also had a bad day. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes was involved in a fumble that Bilal Nichols scooped and scored, then on his next play from scrimmage he threw a pick-six to Jack Jones. That sudden 14-point swing put the Chiefs in a hole and Mahomes was not able to play well enough to lift his team. He also was under constant pressure and would be sacked four times by the attacking Las Vegas Raiders defense.
Although the Philadelphia Eagles would manage to get a one-score win over the New York Giants, Jalen Hurts also had some troubles. He lost a fumble and threw a pick in a game that was harder than expected for the Eagles to pull out at home.
This puts increased pressure on Prescott and McCarthy. How well they can combine to move the Cowboys and put points on the board may be the determining factor. At the same time, Dan Quinn has to come up with better answers, especially against the run. The loss in Miami came down to the inability of Dallas to stop the drive that led to the walk off field goal. They held the Dolphins to just one touchdown, but with Jason Sanders having a career day kicking the ball, making all five of his attempts including three from over 50 yards, the defense was just soft enough to let their team get outscored. Now they face a Detroit team that plays very complementary football, with the run game keeping Goff from having to carry too much of the load. They have to stiffen against the run with their thin linebacking corps while also getting consistent pressure with their pass rush.
Meanwhile, penalties continue to plague the Cowboys. Not only are they second in the league in flags thrown against them, there are times when they just can’t get a holding call against the opposing offenses. The quality of the officiating, or lack of it, is never an excuse. All they can do is work on their own mistakes and hope the referees call a fair game.
This game looms large. Not only does Dallas badly need to get back in the win column, they do not need to back into a playoffs that is shaping up to be all on the road. It looks increasingly like the season finale at the Washington Commanders is going to be a meaningless game with an opportunity to rest and protect the starters, but even there the Cowboys might need to put in the effort to make sure they don’t limp into the postseason with a four-game losing streak. A win over the Lions would alleviate that. This is not a must win game given the overall playoff picture, but it certainly is one they need.