The Cowboys lost another game on the road, which will do nothing to quell the narrative that this team can’t win away from home. But the reality is that all losses are not created equal. A week ago, the Cowboys got blown out on the road in Buffalo and it offered sincere concern for their ability to win on the road. But their performance against the Dolphins, and the way in which they lost, doesn’t offer the same type of concern when evaluating things impartially.
The reason why this narrative is even a talking point, though, is because of the high odds that Dallas will have to go on the road for the entirety of the postseason. Their odds of winning the NFC East have been gradually declining each week, and the Eagles’ win on Monday - narrow as it was - didn’t do the Cowboys any favors.
Technically speaking, the Cowboys do still have a shot at both the division title and the top spot in the conference. They still need another loss from the Eagles, in addition to winning their final two games. Right now, the odds of the Cowboys winning the NFC East sit at 17% according to the New York Times’ playoff simulator. Their odds of getting the top seed in the NFC is even lower, at 1%, as they’d need two more losses from the 49ers on top of the Eagles struggles.
In other words... so you’re saying there’s a chance?
The overwhelming likelihood is that the Cowboys fall short of a division title and secure the fifth seed, going on the road to face the winner of the NFC South. That may not seem like a particularly daunting task, but the divisional round would bring a more challenging matchup for sure, likely a road trip to Philadelphia or San Francisco. Of course, the Cowboys have lost in both those places this season.
Which is why their road record is so worrisome to some. Mike McCarthy has successfully turned this team into a group that protects its home turf and wins its divisional games, which is often a recipe for success. And sure enough, McCarthy is about to take this team to the playoffs for the third straight year, a level of consistency this franchise hasn’t seen since the 90’s.
The problem that McCarthy has run into, though, is a division rival with an extremely aggressive general manager that has kept his organization loaded with talent. In most other settings, McCarthy would have already clinched his third straight division title; in fact, that’s exactly what he did for much of his time in Green Bay. Another issue that McCarthy is running into is the general dominance of the 49ers, a problem that almost every other NFC team has experienced lately as well.
Still, the biggest question facing the Cowboys right now is whether or not they stand a chance against playoff-caliber teams on the road. Against the Dolphins, they absolutely proved they could compete in such a setting. The Dolphins are one of the best teams in the league and have been for most of the season. Their offense is highly explosive and efficient, and the defense has been rounding into form over the last two months.
The Cowboys drew the best version of this team on Sunday, and they went toe-to-toe with them. McCarthy’s offense didn’t dominate, but they did have some good moments. They were especially effective early on, netting some chunk plays and consistently moving the chains. Then the Miami defense got the upper hand for a while, forcing several bad possessions. But the offense came alive again, scoring points on each of their final three drives while averaging 5.4 yards per play. Crucially, Dak Prescott led a go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter, stepping up when they needed him most.
The defense ultimately fell apart on their final drive, getting run over and letting the Dolphins set up an easy field goal to win the game, but they had been really good prior to that. Facing an offense that seemingly had the ideal personnel to beat Dan Quinn’s defense, Dallas only surrendered one touchdown and otherwise limited them to field goals. That’s a winning performance most weeks.
In many ways, this game resembled the Cowboys’ loss in Philadelphia. It was a very close game that came down to the very final play, and a couple of key plays here and there could’ve easily changed the outcome. But if that loss to the Eagles offered confidence that they could beat them in the next game - and they proved that in thorough fashion just a few weeks later - this loss to the Dolphins should offer confidence that the Cowboys can get into a street fight with any team on the road and have a puncher’s chance.
Until the playoffs start and the Cowboys actually face a playoff team on the road, confidence is all you’re going to get. But McCarthy’s team responded well from a miserable loss with a game that, while ultimately not the desired outcome, should give this team the swagger they need to feel good about making a playoff run.