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Cowboys point/counterpoint: What the Lions game means

How important would you say Saturday’s game is?

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys look to end their first losing streak of the season this Saturday against the Detroit Lions. They find themselves with a playoff berth already locked up, and rapidly vanishing chances to improve their seeding. Tom Ryle and David Howman are trying to figure out what the game really signifies.

Tom: Last week, we argued about how important the Miami Dolphins game was. Well, they lost that one. Your take was that it really didn’t matter for the Cowboys’ situation going into the playoffs. I have to take my hat off to you. Dallas now can be no worse than the fifth seed, and I really don’t see them winning out while the Philadelphia drops a game to win the division.

Is it time to look to start making some business decisions? I’m talking about Tyron Smith here. Based on how things went with Chuma Edoga filling in for him last week, they need the All Pro back if they really want to win. But I don’t know how wise that would be. Maybe the best thing they could do is let Smith heal up until the postseason, and tell Dak Prescott to just keep throwing the ball away to avoid pressure if he has to.

David: Well, thank you for tipping the hat, because it was really hard to take a victory lap after the heartbreak of that loss in Miami. All in all, I felt very encouraged by the way the Cowboys played in that one, but they were just a handful of plays short in the end.

As for this week’s game, it’s much more important, as I was saying last week. The Eagles almost lost to the Giants this weekend, and that was in Philadelphia. That Week 18 road trip to face the Giants suddenly looks more promising. Even if Philly doesn’t drop another game, though, the Cowboys need this game. Much like you were saying last week about the confidence that comes with beating a playoff caliber team, the Cowboys need to win. They’re much more likely to face the Lions again than they are the Dolphins, after all.

Having said all that, I actually do think it’s a wise move to shelf Tyron Smith until the playoffs. There’s little from this last week that makes me want to see more Chuma Edoga, but that’s kind of the point. I’d rather Edoga play these next two games when the Cowboys are guaranteed to play the next week - and, not to mention, get him plenty of live game reps after sitting on the bench most of the year - than be forced to rely on him in a win-or-go-home setting.

Tom: I think we can add the activation of Matt Waletzko to that equation as well. Things are now set up to keep Tyron out and have Waletzko as the backup.

That does add some worry about Prescott, though. As The Athletic said in a recent article, the Cowboys go as Prescott goes. Against Miami, he was going down and getting banged around all game, and it clearly affected his performance. That’s why I think the team needs to prioritize minimizing contact for their quarterback. He needs to avoid playing hero ball and get rid of it rather than try and extend plays where he is at risk of more hits. If he gets hurt, things are basically over for the team.

It would be a huge help if the running game could show up and produce this Saturday. It has been more or less MIA in the two most recent losses, and wasn’t doing much before then. They need the ability to move the ball on the ground. Being one-dimensional makes it hard to win, and that is even more so in the playoffs.

David: Another part of the problem for Prescott these last two weeks is facing defenses with great coordinators and players. Both Buffalo and Miami were frequently taking away Prescott’s first read, forcing him to hold the ball much longer than normal. That’s rarely been the case this year, even against better defenses like the Jets.

One thing that makes me feel a little better about resting Smith until the playoffs is looking at the two defenses Prescott faces next. Detroit has struggled all year on defense, especially in the secondary. They have some pieces that can occasionally sync up and look really good, but a quarterback like Prescott and play-caller like Mike McCarthy shouldn’t (emphasis on “shouldn’t”) have much trouble against them.

After that, it’s a Commanders defense that got carved up by the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and has only gotten worse since then. Those players have been checked out for weeks now, and the defense is now being run by a head coach who knows he’s about to be out of a job. I really don’t feel too concerned about Prescott’s ability to get the ball out quickly against these two defenses and, by extension, make Edoga’s life a little bit easier.

Tom: That still leaves me wondering about whether a loss in this game would really hurt Dallas. We tend to think of this as a borderline “must-win” situation, but is it really? Let’s say they go with a conservative game plan and try to work on the run. Add in not pressing with Prescott, and this one might not go the way we prefer. We need to consider the defense as well. They failed to stop the Dolphins on the game-deciding drive at the end. Detroit also brings one of the better running attacks in the league to the game, and that is not the best matchup for Dan Quinn’s bunch.

I think the Cowboys are the better team. I’m just not sure they aren’t going to be very cautious in this one, and not take a lot of risks if they are behind as the game winds down. The best thing would be for them to jump out big and cruise the way they tend to do at AT&T Stadium. I still have an uneasy feeling that isn’t going to happen. Despite whatever they might say, they have to be looking ahead to January and trying to figure out how they can win on the road against good teams, which of course has not happened at all this year.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope Dallas wins, and think they will. I’m just conflicted about how much it really means.

David: As has been the case for the last two weeks, this is only a must-win game if the Eagles also lose. The Cowboys have already clinched a playoff berth and are now assured of the fifth seed at worst, so the only movement left for them is up. But if the Cowboys don’t win this game, and the Eagles drop another game, that will pretty much extinguish their chances of winning the division.

Of course, that really only matters because of the advantage of playing at home even once in the playoffs. More things have to happen for the Cowboys to secure the top seed in the NFC, and those things are much less likely to happen. But with all these concerns about the Cowboys’ ability to win on the road, the goal should be to play as many playoff games in Dallas as possible. They don’t really have any say in that, but losing definitely hurts their chances of doing so. Not to mention that losing three in a row right before the playoffs start can’t be a good thing for the psyche of the team. So, regardless of what happens in Philadelphia this weekend, the Cowboys have to treat this like a must-win game.

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