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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Confidence levels for the stretch run

The Eagles are the first of four games that will determine the path to the playoffs for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
You have to believe in QB1.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It seems hard to believe, at least to us, that we are already about three quarters of the way through the season. The Dallas Cowboys sit at 9-3, tied for the second-best record in the NFC, but unfortunately trailing this week’s opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, by a game, and with the guys in green holding the key tiebreaker as well. No matter how difficult it might be to win the NFC East, this game is still crucial from a variety of standpoints. It not only is the most significant test of the Cowboys since the first time the two teams met, a five point loss for Dallas, it starts a four game stretch that is clearly the most difficult one of the year, with the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and Detroit Lions all on the slate before what looks to be a meaningless final game at the Washington Commanders.

If you have somehow missed it, to this point the Cowboys have not won a single game against a team that now has a winning record. But somehow they have only played two teams that do at this point. A quick look at the NFC standings gives us a little hint: Only four NFC teams currently sit above .500. The good news is that it certainly looks like Dallas is among the elite in the conference. Starting with the Eagles, we are going to find out just how elite they are.

Obviously, they need to win more games going forward, starting with this Sunday. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at just how optimistic we should be.

Tom: There is a belief that offensive performance is much more sustainable than defensive, and after the Seattle Seahawks game, I think the Cowboys are a case study in that. Since the loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Mike McCarthy and his offense have been on an absolute tear. Leading it all is Dak Prescott. He has inserted himself clearly into the MVP conversation with his strong play, racking up 300 yard games while throwing 21 touchdowns versus only two interceptions. He is ably abetted by CeeDee Lamb, Jake Ferguson, Brandin Cooks, and the rest of the receiving corps.

But after many games where they throttled the opponents, Dan Quinn’s defense looked far too vulnerable against the Seahawks. Geno Smith and D.K. Metcalf in particular ripped them up. It fell on the offense and a fourth quarter stiffening by the defense to salvage the win.

That seems to make the case that the offense is what is going to carry this team if they do go on a run the rest of the way.

David: I’m generally inclined to agree with you, as it’s been proven over time that offensive results are much more consistent than defensive results on average. However, when we look at the Cowboys specifically, it’s kind of been the opposite during Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Obviously, the offense wasn’t his until this year, but the Cowboys were great on offense in 2021 and then pretty average in 2022. We won’t discuss 2020, because they were mostly bad for reasons that had very little to do with coaching.

However, the defense has been pretty consistently great since Dan Quinn showed up. They finished fourth in defensive DVOA in 2021, with a -11.4% grade, and we all insisted they’d take a step back in 2022 because that’s what defenses do. And while they finished with a lower grade of -10.6% Dallas was still fourth in defensive DVOA. So far this year, they’re sitting in a tie for sixth place with a -7.9% grade, which is still pretty good in a vacuum.

I’m inclined to believe their poor performance against the Seahawks, which was so bad that it dropped them from third in defensive DVOA, is an outlier that can be mostly attributed to playing three games in 12 days, as well as Seattle having some really good receivers. I’d be more concerned if they put up a game like that against the Panthers, but getting beat by Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on the final leg of a scheduling speed run isn’t the worst thing in the world. And Quinn’s meaningful sample size in Dallas tells us that we can count on this defense going forward, even if they’re not giving us warm fuzzies right now.

Tom: I think we have a difference in perspective, as I am talking strictly in this season. But you raise a valid point about how Quinn should bounce back, especially after the extra time they have had to prepare. And with a vulnerable secondary, the Eagles could be another game where the offense goes off.

But Dallas cannot in any way take Philadelphia lightly. They are still a dangerous offense and their defensive front seven are a clear and present danger not only for Prescott but for the running game, which has not exactly been impressive for the Cowboys. This could turn into an offensive shootout, but don’t discount the possibility of it becoming a low scoring defensive struggle. While both teams are flawed, they are not sitting at the top of the standings by pure chance. This is a clash of NFC titans, and both teams are well aware of what they can stake a claim to with a win.

David: It’s at least mildly ironic that these teams can be called NFC titans, with plenty of validity to such a title, while also having watched both teams get ripped to pieces by the 49ers. Maybe that says a lot about the hierarchy of this conference.

As to the topic at hand, I’m not lacking in confidence that the Cowboys offense will play well this week against the Eagles. Their defense has been vulnerable all year, and they’ve seemingly gotten worse as the season has gone on. But where I do have some wavering faith is in looking at their remaining games. As a McCarthy believer, I’ve been happy to see this offense explode under his watch, but the schedule doesn’t line up nicely for them to continue that success.

Playing on the road against the Bills in mid-December is a tall task even before considering Dak Prescott’s résumé in cold weather games. Following that up with a road game against a Dolphins defense that is starting to hit its stride is less than ideal. And while it’s fair to think that the team’s season-finale against the Commanders should be an auto-win, that’s going to be another cold weather game and very possibly a must-win game for the Cowboys, depending on how the seeding shakes out by then. I’m as bullish on McCarthy and Dak Prescott as anyone, but December has generally been this quarterback’s worst month throughout his career. With so much of this offense relying on him and the passing game, that makes me a little nervous.

Tom: I’m not going to look too far ahead myself. Just like the team, we have to take it one game at a time.

We can see a lot of reasons this one will be a close affair, but there is always the chance it will turn into a lopsided game. The Cowboys certainly have had their share of those. While Philly looks like a poor opportunity for that, the history of the two teams has shown us that strange things can happen. The Eagles have not blown many teams out this year, with three fourteen point wins, but that would be seen as a bit of a beatdown in this matchup. I obviously have a preference on which way I would want a one-sided game to go, but you know Nick Sirianni would take evil glee in putting a whipping on Dallas.

Both these teams have shown a lot of resilience this season, outside their losses to non-division rivals, so the odds seem small one will get a big win over the other. However it turns out, though, the winner of this game will have more than just bragging rights. Whatever you think about momentum, this game sets the table for the end of things. I think this is a pretty important game, verging on a must-win for both teams.

David: The stakes are very high for both teams. If the Eagles lose this one, they’ll officially be on a losing streak and the noise around their season and all those lucky wins will reach a fever pitch. And if the Cowboys lose, they’ll not only have been swept by this team for the first time since 2011 but the narrative of losing to winning teams will be impossible to ignore. Of course, it would also virtually eliminate the Cowboys from contention for the top spot in both the division and conference.

On the flip side, a win for the Cowboys would be a massive boost in confidence as they head into a tough stretch of non-divisional opponents. Whether it’s the offense, defense, or both that powers them to a win on Sunday night, such an outcome would do wonders for this team’s perception both inside and outside of the locker room.

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