Monday, June 5, 2023

Cowboys 2021 playoff outlook: Preview of Dallas’ remaining games, what to improve, how to obtain No. 1 seed

If you’re the Dallas Cowboys, this part of the season is where your Michelins have to meet the asphalt. Having narrowly lost to Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to start the 2021 regular season, the Cowboys rode an offensive surge led by Dak Prescott and his smörgåsbord of weapons to a six-game win streak that was complemented mightily by the emergence of rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons as the league’s newest defensive phenom and a blistering interception tally from former second-round pick Trevon Diggs

The good times came to a screeching halt when they consumed their own Velveeta before facing the Denver Broncos though, and they’ve been working to regain form ever since. That led to a November to forget and set the team up for a December many thought would be easygoing, but has instead become an intense slate of needed victories against opponents who aren’t now what they were in October.

Quiet as it’s kept though, the Cowboys aren’t either, with their defense seeing the impactful return of All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and the likely return of both Neville Gallimore and Randy Gregory in Week 14 against the Washington Football Team. That will create a monstrous tandem with Parsons and Diggs and unheralded playmakers like Jayron Kearse patrol the secondary, and the offense expects to level up as Amari Cooper begins feeling better after his bout with COVID-19, but eyes are also on All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott; who might do well to get a break (though it’s unlikely to happen). 

It’s the final stretch of what still has the chance to be a very, very special year for the Cowboys, but only if they finish their food. Let’s take a look at how they can scrape the plate clean en route to SoFi Stadium for Super Bowl LVI.

Key schedule observations 

  • Season series vs. WFT to conclude in a three-week period
  • Four division battles in final five contests
  • Three remaining road games
  • Remaining home games are in the form of a two-game homestand

Biggest need: Return to orbit on offense

Believe it or not, the Cowboys are still a top-2 offense in points scored per game, racking up an average of 29.4 points per game — despite their latest shortcomings on that side of the ball. If that doesn’t give you an idea of just how Goliathan (new word, go with it) they can be when they execute, nothing will. The fact is they’ve been carried mostly by their defensive compatriots though, and that’s as much a salute to what Dan Quinn has been able to do, in the absence of key players and with breakout seasons from young stars like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, as it is a question mark as to what’s been preventing Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore from conducting the train without tilting on the rails from time to time.

Their effort against the Raiders ended up being a “too little, too late” type of deal, but you saw Prescott go on a tear in the fourth quarter to force overtime and nearly a win after being down as much as 11 points in the third quarter. The offense mostly sputtered again in New Orleans the following week, but the touchdown drive that featured a surgical dissection by Prescott with big plays from Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup served as a reminder there’s still a V12 under that hood. The sooner they can get back to lighting up scoreboards, the better, because building momentum and chemistry for the playoffs is paramount; and this includes Moore climbing out of what has been an odd slump of questionable play-calling. 

The defense is coming together in amazing fashion, and simply need to keep climbing as starters return to the mix, as the offense irons out their own set of problems.

Oh, and stop playing musical chairs with the offensive line — one major reason for the disruption of the offense as the Cowboys try to settle in with returning players (Gallup, Lamb and Cooper are all filtering back in after injury or COVID). Put the best five on the O-line and leave it alone, before it’s too late. The time to experiment was before December and … *checks notes* … it’s now December.

Continuity is key, and the Super Bowl is the lock. 

Current standings

  • 8-4 overall, 2-0 division, 6-1 conference
  • No. 1 in NFC East
  • No. 4 in NFC 

The Cowboys sit at 8-4 on the season after seemingly righting the ship — at least defensively — against the Saints in New Orleans. It starts the month of December the right way after a brutal November that saw them three of four games to abruptly halt a six-game win streak. It also keeps them atop the NFC East and within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the NFC, owned at the moment by the Arizona Cardinals (9-2), a team the Cowboys will square off against before the regular season concludes. The importance of that looming battle can’t be overstated but Dallas can ill-afford to look ahead, with the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles still in the running for the NFC East title — if the Cowboys outright collapse in their final five games.

They’re enjoying a two-game lead in the division on second-place WFT and 2.5 games over the third-place Eagles, having already defeated the latter this season but preparing to face the former twice in the next three weeks.

The Yellow Brick Road

As it stands, the Cardinals (9-2), Packers (9-3) and Buccaneers (9-3) are the only three clubs with better records than the Cowboys in the NFC, and things could go to the wire, especially with the Rams (8-4) ending their three-game slide in Week 13 against the wholly disappointing Jacksonville Jaguars

It’s a four-horse race for the top seed in the NFC, and the Cowboys are in position to take it, but it won’t be easy. Strap on your big brain for this one, because the science can get a bit convoluted. For example, they’ll not only need to finish strong (they can really only presumably afford one more loss, if that) and hope the Cardinals lose to the Rams in Week 14, and then get caught off-guard by a team like the Colts in Week 16 and/or the Seahawks in Week 18 — with the matchup against the Cowboys sandwiched in-between. Should the Cardinals drop three of their last five and the Cowboys four of their last five, they’ll both finish at 12-5, and then eyes turn to the Packers and Rams to determine everyone’s fate atop the NFC. 

Can Aaron Rodgers, who is without sufficient protection on his blindside due to injury and is himself playing with a broken toe, run the table to end the season? Romantically speaking, many will say yes, but keep in mind the Packers lost two of their last four games going into their bye week. And as for the Rams, again, they just ended a three-game losing streak and it took them going against the Jaguars to do it — Matthew Stafford having recently gone in an interception spree. And now the Rams must travel to face the Cardinals in Week 14, followed by the Seahawks (who just upset the 49ers), an unpredictable Vikings team, a pissed off Ravens club and a 49ers team seeking revenge for a Week 10 loss. 

This is where tiebreakers become very important. 

Heading into Week 14, the Cowboys have a loss at the hands of the Buccaneers (head-to-head is the first tiebreaker), while the Cardinals have a loss to the Packers on their record and the Rams having a loss from both the Cardinals and the Packers on theirs. As noted above, the Cowboys will have their shot at the Cardinals, but not the Packers in the regular season. This weighs a win over Arizona more heavily than any of their other remaining contests — specifically speaking to the conversation about No. 1 seeding (in other words, they all matter, but this game matters most). Looking deeper into it at each team’s conference record (another tiebreaker determinant), the Cowboys are in great position, having a 6-1 record in the NFC. The Cardinals are 6-2 in the conference, the Packers are 7-2, the Buccaneers are 6-3 and the Rams are bringing up the rear in this category with a 5-3 record in conference play.

It truly is a Royal Rumble between these four teams to determine who’ll land a first-round bye and home-field advantage, and in a postseason that now only awards a bye week to the No. 1 seed, while also expanding the playoff field to seven teams per conference.

Take a look below for a breakdown of how the NFL tiebreaker rules work, in descending order of judgment. 

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four
  4. Strength of victory
  5. Strength of schedule
  6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed
  7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed
  8. Best net points in conference games
  9. Best net points in all games
  10. Best net touchdowns in all games
  11. Coin toss

All told, the Cowboys not only need to try and win out, but they also need the other three teams to suffer losses and then, if there are any ties to be broken, hope they own the H2H win or that they’ve at least finished with the better conference record in a situation wherein H2H doesn’t apply (i.e., no regular season matchup vs. Rams or Packers). The Cowboys have the best strength of schedule (.514) and most points scored in the conference (104) among The Four NFC Horsemen, but that only matters if the tiebreaker judgment falls that far down the list.

Yes, this is all complex, but the plan itself is simple for the Cowboys: mount up, sweep the division to end the season and then wait to see if the road to Super Bowl LVI will run through Arlington. And the good news for them is, after stumbling mightily in November, they’re still breathing down the necks of the other top NFC teams in December — hoping to click their heels together and force the playoffs through AT&T Stadium.

Because there’s no place like home.

Washington Football Team

First meeting: Week 14 (FedEx Field) – Sunday, Dec. 12, 1 p.m. ET

Second meeting: Week 16 (AT&T Stadium) – Sunday, Dec. 26, 8:20 p.m. ET (Sunday Night Football)

2021 record through Week 13: 6-6

Series Record: 73-47-2, Cowboys lead

It seemed a foregone conclusion it would be Taylor Heinicke taking the field for the battles with the Cowboys in 2021, or at least that’s what my prediction was this preseason. Unfortunately for Ryan Fitzpatrick, that came at the cost of his health, but Washington has come alive as of late, winners of their last four games entering Week 14. They’ll now try to protect FedEx Field from the invasion efforts of the Cowboys, but that won’t be easy. They’ve lost All-Pro defensive end Chase Young for the season, and fellow pass rusher Montez Sweat remains on injured reserve as well, the two leading the team in sacks last season to the combined tune of 16.5 on the year. Offensively, they’re likely to be without star tight end Logan Thomas, who is still being evaluated for a potentially severe knee injury suffered in their win over the Raiders in Week 13. 

They still have weapons on offense though, headlined by a lethal receiving weapon in Terry McLaurin, and running back Antonio Gibson, who’s already rushed for 800 yards and five rushing touchdowns (with another 216 yards receiving and two receiving TDs on his stat line as well). The ability of rookie phenom Micah Parsons to both bottle up Gibson and help provide pressure on Heinicke will be key, and especially considering Heinicke has shown he’ll make bad decisions a time or two during the game.

One example being recent, because if the Raiders didn’t drop a would-be interception on the final Washington drive in Week 13, Las Vegas wins that game. The Cowboys defense is the best in the league at taking the ball away, and Heinicke will presumably give them opportunities, set to be under more duress with the likely return of Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore to join Parsons and a now-healthy DeMarcus Lawrence. It feels like for as close as this game might be, all the Cowboys have to do is be the defensive juggernaut they’re on path to become and for Dak Prescott and the offense to finally get back to being the juggernaut everyone knows them to usually be.

Prescott is 7-1 at FedEx Field — making it his home away from home — and after seeing his offense struggle the last several weeks, if there were ever a moment to send a message that they’re still capable of boat racing teams, it’s this week and again in Week 16, against a bitter division rival who wants nothing more than to send a message of their own. The offense in Washington averages only 20.5 points per game in 2021 (20th) but allows 24.8 points per game (24th), so they’ll have both hands full in both contests — assuming the Cowboys are firing on all cylinders.

They’re one of the best teams in the NFL when they are, and that’s before they gain defensive reinforcements.

Week 14 Prediction: 34-9, Cowboys

Week 16 Prediction: 30-13, Cowboys

New York Giants 

Week 15 – Sunday, Dec. 19

Location: MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ)

Time: 1 p.m. ET

2021 record through Week 13: 4-8

Series Record: 70-47-2, Cowboys lead

You could call this a trap game, if you’re so inclined. That’s probably fair, considering the Giants are once again one of the worst teams in the league and, after firing offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, working to figure out coaching responsibilities while also trying to figure out when Daniel Jones can retake the field. Jones is dealing with a neck strain that will likely cost him a second consecutive game in Week 14 and put his availability for Week 15 against the Cowboys in jeopardy. It’s a Giants team that was better when they first faced off against the Cowboys in Week 5, and they got walked like a puppy at AT&T Stadium. So it’s difficult to fathom they’d be able to topple a surging, healthy Dallas defense, even if the offense might struggle at MetLife Stadium.

Be it a less-than-prime Jones or Mike Glennon (who is battling a concussion now) or Jake Fromm, the quarterback play for Big Blue will run up against a defensive buzzsaw that is ready to take the ball away from a team often anxious to give it away. Their biggest free agent acquisition, Kenny Golladay, has been wildly disappointing this season and Saquon Barkley looks like a shell of himself, thanks to recent battles with injury that continuously robs him of snaps this season.

And it appears Garrett wasn’t the [only] problem, considering the Giants offense is still struggling to score points, averaging an abysmal 17.6 points per game (28th) while doing a bit better defensively in allowing an average of 22.8 per contest (18th). But, and you’ll sense a theme here, if the Cowboys offense comes alive again and the defense continues serving notice, there’s no reason they can’t put the Giants out of their misery on Dec. 19.

However, take them for granted and … well … Broncos.

Prediction:  30-13, Cowboys

Arizona Cardinals 

Week 17 – Sunday, Jan. 2

Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, TX)

Time: 1 p.m. ET 

2021 record through Week 13: 10-2

Series record: 56-33, Cowboys lead

Kick the tires and light the fires, because this is the one that might determine top seeding in the NFC. If the Cowboys have taken care of business to this point, there is no question this will be a must-win game — home-field advantage and the conference’s only home-field bye at stake. Every challenge the Cowboys have faced to this point of the season and every lesson learned will be put to the test when they host Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. You can view this as a true litmus test on if they’re ready to contend for a Super Bowl this season, and they don’t even get the luxury of calling this fight a home game. 

Sure, it’s being held at AT&T Stadium, but Murray is completely comfortable winning games in Arlington (as he did in college and again in his NFL visit last season). The former NFL Rookie of the Year didn’t light up the stat line in his first game against the Cowboys, but he did use 74 rushing yards and three combined touchdowns to lead the Cardinals to a 38-10 spanking of the Cowboys on their own field. And Murray is even better in 2021, helped largely by All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins — who returned alongside him in Week 13 — and a defense that is one of the best in the league, even without future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt.

This is going to either be one of the highest-scoring games in the NFL this season or one of the lowest, and for a couple reasons. The first and second are already noted for the Cardinals, but let’s expound upon them a bit. Murray leads and offense that averages a hefty 28.6 points per game (3rd) and his defensive counterparts allow only 18.7 points per game (4th). A team that resides in the top five in both offense and defense is as formidable as their record indicates, but here’s the kicker: the Cowboys aren’t slouches in either category, either.

Despite their offensive struggles the past several weeks, Dak Prescott still leads the second-ranked offense in the NFL in points scored per game (29.4) and the defense is 12th in points allowed (22.3 per game) but fourth-ranked in DVOA — per Football Outsiders — with 24.7% DVOA (the Cardinals are fifth with 22.4%). In a battle between unstoppable forces and immovable objects, this could easily be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. 

The Cardinals probably escape this one with a win due to either a big play late, or some laundry against the Cowboys that decides the outcome of an otherwise stout heavyweight bout.

Prediction: 31-30, Cardinals

Philadelphia Eagles 

Week 18 – Sunday, Jan. 9

Location: Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia, PA)

Time: 1 p.m. ET

2021 record through Week 13: 6-7

Series Record: 71-54, Cowboys lead

And here come the Eagles, they said. To their credit, Philadelphia won three games in a four-game stretch from late October to late November, but then they lost to the Giants. Without Jalen Hurts, who sat out Week 13 due to injury, they were able to let Gardner Minshew have his way in a needed victory, but not before the discombobulated New York Jets were able to expose the Philly defense early and often. It’s that same defense that allowed the Cowboys to hang 41 on them in Week 3, and Dak Prescott would love nothing more than to use a healthy tandem of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb to sweep the Eagles, in addition to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard serving up punches in the rushing attack.

That is, of course, assuming the starters play in this contest, but it seems likely they would need to. At one point this season, the Cowboys had such a hefty lead in the division and were so close to grabbing the No. 1 seed that you could entertain potentially resting starters in Week 18, but no more. Their final five games are now much too important after wetting the bed for much of November, and that doesn’t bode well for the Eagles — who will probably be in a must-win situation for a possible wild card seat.

This means the Cowboys will not only possibly need this game for a shot at the top seed, depending no how things transpire with the Cardinals, Rams and Packers, but there’s the added motivation of trying to end the Eagles playoff hopes, and in Philadelphia. So expect the Cowboys to keep the accelerator to the floor for this one, and to do something they’ve been on the verge of doing at several points over the past several seasons: sweep the entire division.

Prediction: 44-17, Cowboys

Final record prediction: 12-5 overall, 6-0 division, 10-2 conference 

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