The Dallas Cowboys received a New Year’s Eve gift in the form of an upset victory from the Arizona Cardinals over the Philadelphia Eagles. This is the loss we’ve been waiting for. After the Eagles played with fire most of the season escaping by the seat of their pants, the universe finally caught up to them. They are losers of four of their last five games and after this most recent loss, people are starting to wonder if the Eagles are broken.
But hey, that sounds like a “them” problem. The Cowboys' win with the Eagles' loss puts Dallas in the driver’s seat to win the NFC East. All the Cowboys have to do is go into FedEx Field on Sunday and beat a Washington team that has lost their last seven games, including a 45-10 shellacking from the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. It should be easy, right? Yes, but divisional games can be tricky. Even when Washington is not all that great, they can be a headache for the Cowboys. In fact, since McCarthy has taken over the team, the Cowboys have lost two out of three at FedEx Field, and both losses have been by 20+ points. This includes last year’s regular-season finale when the NFC East was still on the line. Nothing comes easy.
Taking down the East is super important. Why? Because the level of difficulty between the two different paths is considerably different. Let’s examine...
The No. 2 seed gives the Cowboys a home playoff game in Round 1 against the NFC wild card team with the worst record. Right now that team is the Green Bay Packers. If the Cowboys take care of business, they will host another home playoff game in the Divisional Round. This is great news for a team that has been unbeatable at AT&T Stadium this year. Finally, they would dodge the perennial NFC favorite, the San Francisco 49ers, until the NFC Championship game. If they are looking to advance past the divisional round for the first time in 28 years, this is the best path to do it.
On the flip side, the No. 5 seed puts them on the road and keeps them on the road. They would start by playing the NFC South winner which isn’t too bad, but then they would be on a crash-course path to traveling to the bay to play the 49ers in the Divisional Round. That is not ideal.
The Cowboys are on a short list of teams that can win the Super Bowl this season, but to do it, they’ll need to play well, stay healthy, and have a little good fortune. Having a higher seed and a path of lesser resistance is a big part of that good fortune.
Of course, who they play and where they play is inconsequential if the team doesn’t play well. Just how good do you feel about this football team?
Similar to Brangelina, we’re combining this power couple to represent the Cowboys' offense because it’s hard to be sure who’s the biggest driving force. Are the plays Mike McCarthy has been dialing up for the offense not providing Dak Prescott with enough good options, or is Prescott not seeing the field well enough and not always making good decisions with the football? You can decide for yourself what it is. All we know is sometimes they look great and other times they look a little stuck.
After the bye, the Cowboys offense scored more than 20 points in seven straight games where they averaged 38 points per contest. Was this because they weren’t playing great teams? In that seven-game span, the only team they played that currently has double-digit wins was the Eagles and as we now know, they are in a bit of a rut.
Over their last three games, all against double-digit win playoff teams, they haven’t eclipsed 20 points even once. There are too many instances where they look lost or where Prescott has to run around in the scramble drill and that doesn’t seem like a sustainable operation. This brings us to our next concern...
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
When Prescott has time, he’s looked very good this season, but those times seem few and far between recently. The offensive line has had issues this season. All three of their Pro Bowl linemen, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz have missed action this season. Their young rising star lineman, Tyler Smith, missed a couple of games at the start of the season and he just recently suffered a foot injury that puts future games in question. In fact, the only offensive lineman who has been able to stay on the field all year is Terence Steele, but unfortunately, he has struggled throughout the year as he’s coming off a knee injury last season.
The offensive line of the Cowboys is in disarray. The pass protection is shaky and the run-blocking is completely absent. Prescott has been sacked at least three times in each of the last five games after not being sacked at all the previous three games. And they seem to be getting progressively worse at running the ball. They haven’t broken 100 yards on the ground in each of their last three games and are coming off a season-worst 2.9 yards per carry against the Lions where it felt like were regularly being tackled for a loss whenever they ran the ball. Without some presence of a rushing attack, this offense becomes one-dimensional, and without proper protection, that one dimension becomes very challenging.
There has been lots of worry about this Cowboys defense after being viewed as one of the league’s best early on. They were completely run over by Buffalo and failed to make that one final stop needed against both Miami and Detroit (although they did stop the final two-point attempt). Of course, the most stressful concerns is their run defense. They have had three games this season where they have surrendered 170+ yards on the ground, and not surprisingly they lost by double-digits in all three of them. When they struggle to stop the run, they are helpless.
The thing with this Cowboys defense is that there are weaknesses. Their undersized hybrid linebackers can get washed out of plays at times. Their secondary, while good, are vulnerable to big plays. And even the bread and butter of this defense, their pass rush, can struggle to get pressure at times as they are coming off of five straight contests without a multiple-sack game.
At the same time, this defense can make plays. While some remember what happened late in the game against Miami and Detroit, the defense also made key stops in the fourth quarter and overall held two of the top-scoring teams in the league in check. They also came through big in the fourth quarter in Philadelphia earlier in the year to give the offense multiple chances to win the game.
If you’re expecting dominance, you’ll likely be disappointed, but this is a group that is more than good enough to hold down their side of the bargain if the offense can just do their job.
While the play-calling side of things has been touched on already, there is the head coach aspect that keeps rearing its ugly head a lot this season. And actually, it’s not even a “this season” sort of thing. The problems we’re seeing have been around for a few years now. McCarthy’s clock management has been odd this year, from ultra-conservative in wasting time and settling for a field goal against the Chargers earlier in the year to the higher-risk pass plays and not being able to run out the clock on Saturday. And sometimes McCarthy doesn’t even know how time works and allows his team to get a delay of game penalty before the two-minute warning runs down.
The preparation continues to be a problem. The penalties are well known and it’s not just that this team has been bad in this area since he took over as the head coach, it’s what they’re bad at. Whether it’s jumping offsides or all the offensive confusion going on before the snap, it’s mind-boggling. These are things that never end and it’s either cost the Cowboys dearly or almost cost them dearly many times over the past few years.
And then there are just the weird stuff he can’t get right. The Cowboys are terrible at challenging plays that are obvious overturns because for some reason they can’t properly get the memo out in time. Whether it’s communication issues or McCarthy’s stubbornness, this team continues to be really bad at this.
Come playoff time, when every little thing matters, these coaching miscues can be the difference between winning and losing and the Cowboys have a distinct disadvantage here.
The Cowboys are a good football team. Winning double-digit games and making the postseason hasn’t been a problem for them as they’ve done that three straight seasons now. While people applaud that consistency, the week-to-week consistency of this football team leaves something to be desired. The ineffective play-calling, the defensive letdowns, and the costly penalties, these things are all possible at any given point in time. The only thing we can truly count on are death, taxes, and Brandon Aubrey. The Cowboys have a chance and they can make some noise, but they’ll need to do something they haven’t done in 28 years and that’s have everything coming together. When it does, they look pretty unbeatable.