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What the NFL Divisional matchups say about the Cowboys struggles since the ‘90s

Last weekend’s games make the Cowboys look worse in comparison.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I was an avid wrestling fan, and Dallas Cowboys fan, when younger. The personalities then seemed larger than life. Michael Irvin was as prominent a sports figure as Hulk Hogan, Lex Luger, or Sting. Where both worlds of sports entertainment seemed similar were the player interviews and wrestling promos. One wrestler from that time was Raven, and his signature quote from so many of his promos was “What about me?”

This past weekend’s divisional round of the playoffs has made Cowboys fans feel the same. What about us? For nearly 30 years, Cowboys fans have supported a franchise that has failed to deliver deep postseason success. A franchise that, despite being the most lucrative brand in sports with no signs of that changing anytime soon, is averse to risk and change in how it operates. Frankly, the franchise has become a shell of itself and what the brand used to represent. The NFL has left the Cowboys in a holding pattern of mediocrity for almost three decades.

Sure, we can talk about the current coaching staff that has to prepare the team better to win in the postseason, or the players who have to minimize turnovers, missed assignments on defense and demonstrate more discipline on the field. But let’s talk about ownership.

This past weekend’s matchups in the divisional round have several storylines that should trigger the Cowboys fanbase and signal to the ownership that their negligence is why eight teams were competing for a spot in the conference title game. A game in which the Cowboys haven’t played in since 1996 as they sat home watching the playoffs after yet another early exit in the postseason. Here’s how each divisional matchup this past weekend ties back to the Cowboys and makes their loss to Green Bay worse by comparison.

Houston vs. Baltimore:

The upstart Houston Texans surprised everyone this season. Led by a rookie head coach and quarterback, no one expected Houston to have the season it did. The Texans have several players who are Cowboys cast-offs who played central roles at times for the Texans, such as Noah Brown and Dalton Schultz. The Cowboys in-state rivals also won their division. Since joining the NFL in 2002, Houston has played the same number of playoff games as the Cowboys (12), playing five divisional games versus Dallas’ six. The Texans should only improve with the young nucleus and bolster their roster with nearly $70M in cap space for next season.

The Baltimore Ravens were the top seed in the conference and will host the AFC title game this week. The Ravens only existed the year after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. The Ravens have developed a reputation for having one of the best team cultures in the sport and, from humble beginnings, drafted very well for years under Ozzie Newsome. Baltimore is on the doorstep of its third Super Bowl appearance in their team’s history. The Ravens contrast the Cowboys not only because they invest heavily in linebackers but also because they invested in external pieces at the position and in the draft. Patrick Queen was drafted in the first round and was paired with Roquan Smith after the Ravens traded second- and fifth-round picks to form a terrific duo at linebacker. Baltimore concerned itself with building the best roster, which is paying dividends.

Green Bay vs San Francisco:

The Cowboys are combined 0-5 against the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers in their last five meetings in the postseason. The Cowboys have been terrorized by Green Bay in the playoffs with Aaron Rodgers, who Mike McCarthy once led, but the trend continued after their embarrassing defeat to Jordan Love and the Packers. Though Green Bay played admirably, you get the feeling that it should have been the Cowboys in that spot. No Cowboys fan felt good about rooting for either team and is likely hoping neither team wins the Super Bowl. However, the Cowboys’ futility against a seventh-seed team and then nearly making the NFC title game is irksome.

As for the 49ers, this might have been the best chance the Cowboys would have had to beat them in the postseason. The rivalry between the teams goes back to the 1980s, but this version of San Francisco isn’t led by Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Brock Purdy looked frazzled and missed many open receivers on Saturday. The 49ers lost Deebo Samuel during the contest, and their offense looked off rhythm. The 49ers’ secondary allowed big plays, and San Francisco surrendered over 100 rushing to Aaron Jones. The 49ers were as sloppy at times as the weather in Santa Clara. The 49ers were beatable, and the Cowboys squandered what could’ve been their best chance to take them down in the postseason this century.

Yet, they earned the right to compete for the Super Bowl because of how they are constructed. The 49ers are more aggressive regarding roster building, making several trades to build their team, such as acquiring Christian McCaffrey, Randy Gregory, and Chase Young, and free agent signings like Javon Hargrave. The 49ers are in their seventh NFC title game since the 2011 season and have done it with two different general managers.

Tampa Bay vs Detroit:

Had the Cowboys won last week, they would have been at home facing the Lions after beating them in Week 17. Along with the Cowboys and the Washington Commanders, Detroit was one of three NFC teams not to make the NFC title game since the 1995 NFL season. That’s no longer the case, as Detroit has risen from years-long despair to have a rugged and talented football team. Detroit’s breakthrough is a testament to a team that has been lost for years but is still willing to adapt and empower the head coach to put their imprint on the organization.

The Cowboys are a team run by the owners, like the Lions, now run under Chairwoman Sheila Ford Hamp. The difference is that Detroit has allowed its employees to impact operations significantly. Yes, there were many terrible tenures under general managers and head coaches in Detroit. For example, Matt Millen drafted a wide receiver in the first round for three consecutive years, and Matt Patricia tried to run the Lions as a caricature of Bill Belichick, much to the dismay of his players. However, the Lions got it right with Dan Campbell, and the team has taken on his personality.

Campbell and his defensive coordinator, Aaron Glenn, were once Dallas Cowboys, so seeing both of them thrive as they have makes you celebrate for them in a sense and wonder what could have been. The Motor City, in one season, has raced past the Cowboys in terms of future outlook and is hard to accept because many never imagined Detroit to go further than Dallas has gone in so long suddenly.

Kansas City vs Buffalo:

Seeing Patrick Mahomes ascend to the elite ranks as he has is nothing short of amazing. He boasts a unique skill set that separates him from his peers, and his proficiency as a passer is incredible. His teams had not played a road playoff game until Sunday, and that’s a testament to his greatness.

Mahomes could make his fourth Super Bowl appearance and continue to build a Hall of Fame legacy. The Bills and Josh Allen struggled to get past a particular opponent in the postseason, as the Cowboys have failed to with San Francisco and Green Bay. That said, Allen has performed well enough to give his team a chance to win those contests. When watching both quarterbacks, you get the sense that both teams will make regular meetings in the postseason thanks to their talented quarterbacks.

That thought circles back to Dak Prescott. Prescott had a terrific regular season, and while in the conversation for the league’s MVP, many pundits countered that Allen and Mahomes could also be considered. One could suspect biases, yes, but also because they believe they can deliver in the big moments and have the natural talents such as elusiveness and the strength to pull it off. Prescott is a good quarterback and leader, but seeing these quarterbacks perform as they did, you start to wonder if Prescott has enough natural gifts to elevate himself as a star in the postseason on a regular basis.

Final thoughts:

All of the teams who played in last week’s games have similarities, such as a good pass rush, some semblance of a running game, and excellent play-callers on offense. When the Cowboys sit down to assess a plan for this season, these areas must be the primary focus of their internal conversations and personnel. In short, the fans are exhausted and seek gratification for their years of loyalty amidst minimal success. There is an apathy forming in the fanbase, however. The way to restore their faith is to be more aggressive and keep improving the roster throughout the season. These playoffs have demonstrated what other teams are doing to compete for a championship and what the Cowboys aren’t. Jerry Jones, what about us?

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