The Dallas Cowboys can finish no worse than the number five seed in the NFC playoffs. Their chances of winning the NFC East are slim. You don’t put a bunch of money down on something that involves the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants beating the Philadelphia Eagles while Dallas would have to win their final two. The Detroit Lions have won their division for the first time this century and are one of the best teams in the conference, representing a significant challenge in the last home game of the season.
Now that we’ve painted that picture, let us explain why this is a very important game for Dallas.
Let’s start with that almost certain road path through the playoffs. All of us are too familiar with how things have gone for the Cowboys when they are forced into that. Despite getting to double-digit wins and locking up a playoff spot very early, this year’s edition of the team still has of questions hanging over it. First and foremost: Can they win a road game over a good opponent? Four times they had that opportunity, and four times they came up short. Twice they were frankly humiliated. The other two were close games, but at the end there was still no hand-rolled Cuban seed tobacco product to savor for them.
However, as the season had progressed, the wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks are looking a lot better. Those two teams currently hold the sixth and seventh seeds. Add in the win at home over the Eagles and Dallas has three victories over teams with winning records. Get the dub against Detroit and that goes to four. While Los Angeles and Seattle are not on the same level as the San Francisco 49ers, the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins, it looks like at least one of them will make the postseason, and possibly both. No other teams in the NFC are above .500.
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A win over the Lions would be more than just burnishing their résumé. It would be a more credible example of them being able to defeat a good team, about the same level as beating Philadelphia. That wouldn’t just demonstrate capability. It would build confidence. There are certainly times when the Cowboys look like they let the doubts and uncertainties creep into their heads, and nothing clears those out better than a quality victory.
This is the last chance for them, as the season finale is against the Washington Commanders, who have already been eliminated from the playoffs. It could be a truly meaningless game for Dallas depending on how things shake out for the team of Brotherly Shove. Not only would beating the 4-11 Commanders prove nothing, Dallas may elect to sit some of their starters for part or all of the game to have them as healthy as possible for the first round.
Things go well beyond the final score, however. There is a whole checklist of things they need to do this week. Perhaps they can’t do all of them, as some may obviate the others, but they must get some of them accomplished. Here is a look as the most significant.
Don’t fall too far behind
The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the Cowboys do not play well when they get in a hole. That was the reason they elected to receive the ball against the Dolphins. When they score on their opening possession, they win this year. It came so close to working out, but the fumble with first and goal inside the one-yard line became a ten-point swing that may well have determined the outcome. They shouldn’t have even faced that, as on the previous play Tony Pollard was stopped just short of scoring. This is hardly the first time they have come up inches short in getting a touchdown and wound up paying for it this year. The trend of not being able to finish plays like that is one that they need to reverse. Whether or not they get the opportunity to work on that is just a matter of how the game unfolds, but it a situation presents itself, they need to get it done.
There is another way things could go. If the do fall behind, overcoming that would be a nice thing to show the world. It is also much riskier. Getting out to a lead and building on it is what this team is built to do. It is also what they need to do.
Tune up the offense
Dak Prescott did not have a strong game against Miami. He was not bad. Most of the problems sprang from the absence of Tyron Smith. Chuma Edoga had a very rough day at the office, with multiple plays where he inexplicably turned his attention inside and let Bradley Chubb just run around him to get after Prescott. The Dolphins had four sacks, a massive twelve total quarterback hits, and kept Prescott scrambling for much of the game. While CeeDee Lamb still had an impressive game, and Jake Ferguson and Jalen Tolbert both were pretty good, the lack of time definitely played havoc with the passing game.
This presents a quandary for Dallas. While it sounds like Smith might be able to go this week, his availability in the playoffs is much more precious. It may be notable that Matt Waletzko has been activated for this game. If they do elect to keep Smith sidelined to protect his health, they need a better answer at LT. If Edoga doesn’t inspire confidence that he can step up, then they may be willing to give Waletzko a shot.
Offensive line play also affects the running game, and that has not gone well of late. Pollard is just not getting the job done. In the back-to-back losses to the Bills and Dolphins, that was influenced a good bit by having to go to the pass due to the score, but it is hard to characterize Pollard’s season as anything but disappointing. He ranks eighth in the league in rushing, and still has a crack at getting to 1,000 yards with the longer season. His performance still is not what a top team needs from its leading back. Rico Dowdle has also gotten a fair number of carries, but has not even been able to crack the top 50 list of rushers. The Cowboys need a running game that can complement the pass and take some pressure off Prescott. They just are not getting that. This would be an excellent game for them to find it.
Don’t lose the turnover battle
That fumble at the goal line? That was the only turnover in last week’s game. We’ve already discussed how big that loomed.
But the defense has not been able to generate takeaways recently the way they were earlier in the season. This is always one of the hardest things to accomplish due to the chance nature of things. We may have to hope that the law of averages will swing back in Dallas’ favor. Still, they also might do a better job at the things that lead to getting the ball away from the opponent. And the offense must protect the ball. The only acceptable number of giveaways is always zero.
Whether it is the pass rush or the run defense, the past two games have seen the Cowboys unable to get stops. They didn’t do it all game against Buffalo, and failed miserably on the game-winning drive by Miami. Dan Quinn’s reputation has taken a couple of big hits the past two weeks and he needs to figure out how to get Micah Parsons and the rest of the pass rush home, or at least putting more effective pressure on the passer. That will help the secondary be in position to get interceptions.
He has an even bigger task in shoring up the run defense. Dallas has elected to do little to address the very thin and light situation at linebacker. Releasing Rashaan Evans has further complicated things. While that opened up the spot for Waletzko, it is more likely driven by his arrest earlier this week. Countering that is Evans’ usage last game, or lack thereof. He didn’t play a single snap on defense and only took the field on seven special teams downs.
Still, they let the Dolphins get a game-sealing first down on three consecutive runs that forced them to use up all their timeouts, putting Miami in position to run out the clock and get the walk-off field goal. There have been far too many runs that have hurt them all season, with that drive just the latest and possibly most crucial. Now the Lions come to town, and they are one of the better running teams in the league. The Cowboys cannot let them convert plays and control the clock on the ground, and it is an open question whether that can be done.
Stop the flags
Almost every week, we mention this. Because almost every week it is a problem. Last game, the refs didn’t call all that many against either team. Still, some like the facemask infraction committed by Damone Clark were maddening.
Also, is Parsons the most tackled pass rusher in the league? Just asking, because he cannot buy a holding call.
If they can do well in some of these things, like winning the turnover battle or getting a big early lead, the others might not be a factor. But they have to get some of these things accomplished, and it would be nice to see progress in all of them. That is especially true given how well Detroit has played this year. Win this game, and our hopes for the playoffs get a big boost.
Lose, and we will justifiably worry about a quick and highly disappointing early exit.