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Best and worst case scenarios for Cowboys schedule: Weeks 13-18

Will the Dallas Cowboys be able to dethrone the Eagles atop the NFC East this year?

Miami Dolphins waive former first-round pick Taco Charlton Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It is time for the final edition of this series looking at potential ways the Cowboys 2023 schedule can play out. The Cowboys close their divisional series against the Commanders and Eagles in this stretch, and play four straight games against playoff qualifiers from 2022 in weeks 13-16. Having already noted the importance of banking early season wins against NFC West teams like the Cardinals and Rams, as well as midseason contests against the Panthers and Commanders, the overall best case scenario over these games is for the Cowboys to be playing their way into an NFC East crown.

What will it take to get there, or how bad may things fall in a pivotal year for head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff? Let’s take a closer look.

Week 13 vs. Seattle Seahawks (Thursday Night Football)

With just two wins in their last seven tries against the Seahawks, these two teams meeting late in the year on a Thursday night gives more intrigue to the usual slate of non-competitive games that come on Thursdays. Dak Prescott has played the Seahawks four times, including his first ever playoff win, with an average margin of victory for either side being ten points.

Two teams that pride themselves on defense and running the ball will meet at AT&T Stadium, with this being an ideal spot for Dallas to have a big showing on offense and play a well-rounded game.

Best case: The Cowboys relying on the QB advantage Dak Prescott gives them in divisional games has been covered a lot here, but this game feels similar in a good matchup against Geno Smith. Smith was one of the best stories in the league last season in Seattle, setting new career highs in passing yards and touchdowns with 30.

By this point last year, there was little doubt the Cowboys were relying more on Dan Quinn’s defense than the offense to win games. Against his former team, this could be the case again, but the Cowboys know their Texas Coast offense needs to be more sustainable late in the year as well. The Seahawks allowed the third most rushing yards in the league in 2022, so a balanced effort to support Quinn’s defense frustrating Smith into turnovers would be the Thursday night showing Dallas needs to feel confident heading into another primetime game against the Eagles to follow.

Worst case: The Cowboys getting extra rest to prepare for the Eagles after this game is a scheduling gift, but this advantage isn’t as good if it comes off a loss to Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. The Cowboys typically do a good job taking away a team’s number one receiving option thanks to Trevon Diggs, so him losing this matchup to DK Metcalf would be concerning. Seattle’s offense lacks big-play ability outside of Metcalf, and doesn’t pose hardly the same challenge on defense as they did in some previous matchups against the Cowboys, making a win on home field something the Cowboys can’t let slip away here.

Week 14 vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday Night Football)

For the 20th consecutive season, the Cowboys and Eagles meet on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. In what all football fans are hoping is the second meeting of the season between Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott, after one team leader was missing from each rivalry game last season, the path to the Cowboys reclaiming the top spot in the NFC East goes through this game.

The Cowboys will see two AFC East front-runners in the Bills and Dolphins immediately after this game, only ramping up the importance of either salvaging a season split with the Eagles or sweeping them for the first time since 2018.

Best case: If the first meeting with the Eagles in Week 9 is on the backend of a tough gauntlet of QBs the Cowboys will face starting in week five at San Francisco, this next meeting against Hurts is just the start of playoff caliber QBs for this defense with Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa potentially waiting in the wings.

Just like the Cowboys offense needs to show they can adjust on the fly and adapt to defenses as they put more on film, the defense will be doing the same at this point while playing the game of attrition all teams go through in December. This would be an ideal game for the Cowboys to have their full depth in the secondary healthy to deal with the Eagles’ weapons. The Gardner Minshew-led Eagles dropped 34 points in Dallas last year, sticking to a similar offense they run with Hurts and having success on the ground.

It will hardly take until Week 14 to see if the Cowboys run defense is improved with new faces like Mazi Smith on the interior, but consistently forcing the Eagles into long down-and-distances while staying ahead of the chains themselves on offense is the clearest way to defend home turf and pull out a Sunday night win versus the Eagles here.

Worst case: As mentioned when covering the first meeting between these teams in Week 9, Cowboys versus Eagles feels like one of the few rivalries in the NFL that still permeates all the way through the fanbases with hatred on both sides.

Is there a worse feeling on Monday as a Cowboys fan than waking up after a loss to the Eagles? True NFL rivalries where both teams across from each other genuinely dislike each other are hard to come by, but this feels like one that transcends the field and extends into the fan bases of Philadelphia and Dallas.

If losing on the road brings up this dreaded feeling for Cowboys fans, waiting all day for Sunday night and ending it with a home loss to Philadelphia would be crushing. Any path for the Eagles to get their first win at the Cowboys since 2017 would raise major concerns for the Cowboys playoff viability. Be it the defense breaking down against Hurts and struggling to defend the read option, or offense sputtering in the closing weeks of the season again, anything short of a playoff intensity in this game leading to a loss is the worst case scenario.

Week 15 at Buffalo Bills

In a meeting of trendy preseason Super Bowl picks, the Cowboys and Bills get the late afternoon slot on FOX in a game that may feel like it’s primetime without actually being under the lights. Late December weather in upstate N.Y. will surely be a factor here, as the Cowboys battle not only the elements but yet another dynamic quarterback in search of a landmark win.

Best case: If the Cowboys are still contending in the NFC East at this point, regardless of how the previous week’s meeting with the Eagles goes, this is the type of win that can do wonders for a locker room. Dallas has an ideal mix of players that have been battle tested through two straight playoff exits to the 49ers still on the roster, and fresh young talent ready to make a difference. Beating another Super Bowl contender in their house would help prove this team can actually reach the NFC Championship game for the first time since 1996.

Mike McCarthy is the right type of veteran coach to help keep the hype and noise that would follow a Cowboys win in Buffalo in context, but internally it’s the type of game this team needs to prove they’re still going the right direction. Offseason moves like the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer and release of Ezekiel Elliott can be validated by matching a Bills offense that lights up the scoreboard at home. This has the feel of a game Prescott will need to be aggressive and push the ball downfield to match Josh Allen, while hopefully avoiding the costly turnovers that have come with this style of play.

Worst case: If you’re going to take a late season loss on the road, doing so to an AFC opponent is always ideal when it comes to playoff seeding. The Cowboys shouldn’t be too discouraged if they lose to the Bills here, but will need to regroup very quickly for games against the Dolphins and Lions.

The Cowboys could learn a lot from last year’s surprising playoff loss for the Bills at home versus the Bengals, who adjusted to playing in the snow by controlling the ball on offense with short passes and keeping everything in front of them defensively. The Cowboys play a much more aggressive defense, and chasing Allen out of the pocket will need to be matched with tight coverage downfield. The same type of short passing game with their trio of tight ends and backfield receiving options could play well here too. If they struggle to make these adjustments and fall well short of matching the Bills offense, the identity of this team will be called into question with a short runway of games left to fix it before any postseason play.

Week 16 at Miami Dolphins

The Cowboys will look to extend their win streak against the Dolphins to five games, making the pivot from potential snow and ice in Buffalo to sunshine with the constant threat of game-changing rain in Miami.

It was the Dak Prescott-to-Amari Cooper connection that earned Prescott’s only career win against the Dolphins in Week 3 of the 2019 season, with two Cooper receiving touchdowns and a Tony Pollard run making the difference in a 31-6 win.

Best case: The Dolphins will have all but one of their divisional games against the Bills behind them at this point, so the table should be set for how much of a meeting between contenders this game really is. A Miami defense that’s stood up to Aaron Rodgers twice, Mac Jones, and Josh Allen could prove a good litmus test for the Cowboys offense. Of all the games we’re looking at here, this feels like the one Dallas may need the most help from the offense in a game that turns out a shootout. The Dolphins’ speed on offense with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle is a challenge for Quinn’s defense, and keeping them from making big plays can only be held in check so long.

The Cowboys relying on their defense has been on a common theme in these best case scenarios, but for a change the offense carries them in Miami with the defense still finding a way to create a few game changing turnovers.

Worst case: If the Dolphins have lived up to being a playoff team under Mike McDaniel for consecutive seasons, this is yet another AFC game the Cowboys face on the road that could define their season. At a point in the season where playoff seeds are within reach, the Cowboys may not be able to afford a late-season slip up against the Fins. Struggling to defend the run in this game would make it hard to keep pace, with the Dolphins moving the ball at will both on the ground and through the air. A game in the 30-40 point range that feels out of reach given what the Cowboys offense has shown to this point would be a hard loss to recover from down the stretch.

Week 17 Vs. Detroit Lions (Monday Night Football)

Though this game is technically a part of ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule, it will be played from AT&T Stadium on Saturday, December 30th. The Lions played themselves into more primetime opportunities under Dan Campbell last year, just missing out on the playoffs but beating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on a Sunday night to end the season.

This is exactly the type of game both Lions and Cowboys fans wanted to see their teams in this season, with it being the last of six night games for Dallas and fourth for Detroit.

Best case: Recent Cowboys-Lions tilts have had a bit of everything, with a controversial playoff ending in 2014. Dez Bryant throwing touchdown passes to Jason Witten, and more recently winning 24-6 on a pair of Ezekiel Elliott rushing touchdowns from a yard out. The Cowboys have moved the ball at will against the Lions, but must have a plan for Aidan Hutchinson up front and Kerby Joseph in the secondary. If building off a win against the Dolphins that ends up being a good showing for the offense, building on it this late in the year with a repeat performance against the Lions would set up the Cowboys well to be playing their best football before any potential playoff game.

Worst case: A loss here would snap the Cowboys five-game win streak against the Lions at an inopportune time. The Cowboys return to the site of their lackluster Week 18 loss against the Commanders from 2022 again this year, so beating the Lions regardless of how improved they are this year feels like a must-have. Jared Goff has found some of his early career form with the Rams, but it is hard to compare him to the likes of Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts, who the Cowboys see in this stretch. Defensive lapses against this Detroit team to squander the types of games the offense has had against the Lions is a worst case scenario for the Cowboys against their first NFC opponent since Week 14.

Week 18 at Washington Commanders

Both Cowboys game with the Commanders are in good spots for Washington to potentially play spoiler, with the first meeting between these classic rivals coming on Thanksgiving and this one to end the regular season.

Whether or not the Commanders are still in contention, this is never a game for the Cowboys to take lightly, and the last chance on the season to prove this offense is improved over the haul of a 17-game slate.

Best case: It’s hard to picture the Cowboys not having a QB advantage in this game no matter how the starting role plays out for the Commanders. This has been the basis for so many of their NFC East wins under Prescott, and earning another here to roll into the playoffs with a divisional win could be just what Prescott needs to take this team past the Divisional Round for the first time.

Although the game had little effect on playoff standing last year, many of the Cowboys starters on offense remain from a 26-6 loss where they managed just ten first downs. Putting that loss to rest with a better showing on offense, and wrapping it up with the defense being in playoff form as well, is all Cowboys fans can ask for when it comes to looking at a big picture best case scenario for Week 18 at this point of the offseason.

Worst case: Not much changes in this road matchup when it comes to a worst case scenario for the Cowboys, compared to looking at the Thanksgiving meeting of these teams:

The Commanders spoiling Thanksgiving would add importance to the Week 17 road meeting between these teams, giving the Cowboys far less room for error in the games leading up to it against AFC powerhouses. The Cowboys don’t get the benefit of seeing the Commanders early in the year while they work out their QB situation, and by this point either Howell or Brissett could be poised for a surprise upset.

The Washington defense has always been tough for Dallas to run against, so in a game where their offense puts pressure on the Cowboys pass game to play a complete game, the chances for an upset increase. This would be exactly the type of loss that calls into question how viable a playoff team the Cowboys can be again this year, and if McCarthy has a future beyond this season as the play-caller and head coach.

Instead of a loss to the Commanders changing how the Cowboys approach games against AFC contenders, it could be other NFC playoff teams next on the schedule for Dallas. With so many other tough games stacked against the Cowboys late in the year, it’s hard to picture a loss to Washington completely souring their playoff hopes, but with the tougher divisional games expected against both the Giants and Eagles, the Cowboys may need this to be a season sweep of the Commanders.

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