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Cowboys can’t drop the ball with NFC East, #2 seed just a win away

Dallas has almost every postseason goal in front of them now, with only 4-12 Washington standing in the way

NFL: DEC 30 Lions at Cowboys Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s a big difference between “improbable” and “impossible,” and that difference has brought us to the Dallas Cowboys being the frontrunner for winning the NFC East and being the number-two seed in the NFC at the close of the regular season. The only barrier now is a road trip to face the lowly Washington Commanders in a game the Cowboys must now use to achieve their goals and build confidence going into the postseason.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ shocking loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday has facilitated Dallas’ newfound grip on its own destiny. Playing at home, Philly squandered a 21-6 halftime lead and surrendered control of the division. Now all the Cowboys have to do is beat Washington this Sunday and it will render the Eagles-Giants game moot.

Beating the 4-12 Commanders, regardless of venue, is barely an achievement in 2023. Washington’s four wins have all come against teams at .500 or below; Arizona, Atlanta, Denver, and New England. But the Cowboys have proven the scary potential to play down to their competition, and we all know how things can get especially hairy on the road and in a rivalry game. And you just know this Commanders team, with coaches and players fighting to keep their jobs in front of a new ownership regime, will give maximum effort in front of the home crowd to try to ruin the Cowboys’ fun.

Thankfully, there’s too much riding on this one for Dallas to look past Washington to the postseason. While an Eagles’ loss to the Giants feels more possible now than ever, both games will kick off in the late afternoon next Sunday. The Cowboys won’t have the luxury of knowing they’ve clinched the division and need to play the Commanders as if everything’s on the line.

Even if the NFC East was a done deal, Dallas would still need that 12th win to secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs. Their head-to-head win over Detroit last week gives them the tiebreaker. That would entitle them to home games through the second round, and perhaps even the NFC Championship Game if the 49ers somehow get upset beforehand.

For a team with Dallas’ Jekyll-and-Hyde personality in home and away games, locking down the comforts of AT&T Stadium for the playoffs is essential. Even if it means veterans and banged-up players not getting extra rest before the tournament, reducing travel during the postseason will mitigate it. And now that home field means something for the Cowboys, it’s an advantage they should fight hard to keep.

Indeed, the degree of fight that Dallas brings to this finale is now worth watching. Will Mike McCarthy keep his guys hungry and focused on the opponent ahead? After barely scraping by Detroit and the two losses to Buffalo and Miami, the Cowboys aren’t exactly cruising into the playoffs. Even if the Commanders don’t represent the best and brightest of the NFC, Dallas can still make a statement by how they approach the game.

Thinking about Dallas entering another postseason and trying to get back to former glory, you can’t help but think about last Saturday’s halftime. How would Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, Darren Woodson, and their ilk have handled business in this situation? Can the 2023 Cowboys show that same killer instinct against a wounded animal like Washington?

Not to go full Jason Garrett on you, but Dallas has to start earning it every day, and on every play, if it wants to reach the mountaintop again. Don’t treat the Commanders like an afterthought, but rather like an appetizer. It’s time to take this gift in Philadelphia’s December collapse and make the most of it.

Yes, the Cowboys will still have to prove themselves against stiffer competition in the playoffs. But how they approach this week will say a lot about their chances of being a true contender this postseason.

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