The Dallas Cowboys clinched a playoff berth Sunday following Washington’s loss, news that had all the excitment of a digital clock turning midnight. The Cowboys can get used to the lack of drama. The NFC East is also all but won following the Giants’ loss in Pittsburgh, forcing us to start looking ahead to the Cowboys’ playoff run.
Dallas has aced every possible regular season test. They’ve won shootouts against high-flying offenses like the Steelers and Redskins. They’ve completed comebacks against strong defenses like the Eagles and Ravens. The Cowboys even showed Thursday night they could win a defensive battle on the road in Minnesota, a rare game where their power-packed offense lacked electricity.
The No. 1 seed in the NFC is a matter of when, not if. A chance to avenge the team’s only loss next week at Metlife Stadium could be the last truly meaningful game the Cowboys play until mid-January. In the meantime, the Fighting Daks will adjust to their new role. With December here, they have transformed from the season’s best story to favorites for the Super Bowl. Now comes the hard part.
Here are three obstacles that stand in Dallas’ way of a title run:
Getting too comfortable
The Cowboys don’t have to look far back in their team’s history for the inherent risk of playing too well early in the season. In 2007, Tony Romo led the NFC’s best offense and an opportunistic defense to a 12-1 record during his first full season as a starter. Sound familiar?
With little at stake down the stretch, the Cowboys lost two of their final three regular season games before crashing out to the eventual champion Giants in the Divisional Round. That Giants team played all their starters in a “meaningless” Week 17 game against the undefeated Patriots while Romo and other Cowboys were benched midway through the third quarter of a regular season finale loss to the Redskins. Dallas went into the playoffs playing mediocre football despite a 13-3 record.
Too much time will be spent in the coming month discussing whether the Cowboys should rest their starters and when it should happen. Focus more on whether Dallas continues to improve as a team.
The Cowboys have been out-gained by 206 yards over the last two weeks against the Redskins and Vikings. They have lost the time of possession battle by at least six minutes each week and run 37 fewer plays than their opponents. This team is built entirely on its offense, and its offense is coming off its worst performance of the season.
The Vikings’ defense took advantage of the offensive line’s big weakness (Doug Free in pass protection) and took chances with their safeties near the line of scrimmage, a recipe Seattle could use in a possibly playoff matchup. They confused Dak Prescott at times. It’s a credit to the Cowboys they found a way to win both of those games, but coach Jason Garrett does not want these trends to continue. He needs to keep his team laser focused on getting better in December because that’s what their rivals will be doing.
Garrett does not want to enter a Divisional Round game against a playoff-tested opponent with their last truly great performance being on Thanksgiving. The next four weeks may not impact the Cowboys much in the standings but they are vital for a team led by its young stars. You can’t take a break from greatness.
Resting players would be a mistake by coach Jason Garrett anytime before a comfortable margin in Week 17, but he can still be careful. MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott is on pace for 387 touches and there’s no reason why the team can’t use quality backup Alfred Morris more to keep Elliott fresh for the playoffs. Dez Bryant is another Cowboy whose snaps could be monitored late in the season.
As a rookie, Prescott can use every experience he can get. Teams have thrown more blitz packages at him in recent weeks with success. Getting Tony Romo “one last start” in Week 17 would be a distraction before Dallas’ bye and a waste of snaps. Prescott needs the reps.
The bigger obstacle when it comes to injuries remains, as always, blind luck. Garrett should be careful about suiting players up that are fighting through injuries, but there’s not much else he can do but pray to the Football Gods to avoid any new injuries to his major players.
The Cowboys’ offseason was plagued by defensive injuries, but this is a healthy squad overall. The only starter on injured reserve is guard La’el Collins, and the Cowboys may have upgraded at the position when Ronald Leary replaced him. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is the only key starter out of action, although he’s expected to return from a groin injury before the end of the season. The Cowboys have enjoyed positive injury luck this season and can only hope that continues over the next month. Injuries happen and the team can’t run out the clock on this regular season out of fear.
Finding a pass rush
The Cowboys have coached around their defensive deficiencies with effort, tackling and timely plays by an underrated secondary. That doesn’t mean this is a quality defense. Dallas entered Week 13 with the No. 27 defense in football according to Football Outsiders’ excellent DVOA efficiency metric. If you prefer play-by-play grading, Pro Football Focus ranks the Cowboys as the No. 31 pass rush.
The return of DeMarcus Lawrence gave Dallas a little juice, and versatile lineman Tyrone Crawford can make occasional plays lining up on the inside or out. Still, this is one of the worst pass rushing groups in the league and they continue to search for the right formula with Benson Mayowa, Ryan Davis and David Irving all struggling to make much of an impact. With some shaky offensive lines next on the schedule (Giants, Bucs, Lions), the Cowboys should use the next month to get better up front.
There are no easy answers here, but it’s rare to see a team with this little pass rush win three straight playoff games. That’s especially true when the opposing slate of quarterbacks could include Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.
Already superstars in their hometown of Dallas, this Cowboys team will be treated as conquering heroes for the next month. They need to stay vigilant about what got them here. As Romo learned nearly a decade ago, regular season dominance doesn’t always translate to January. Oh, and we’d recommend skipping any bye week trips to Cabo.