The Dallas Cowboys looked lost in the middle of the season, but their strong defense and the emergence of Amari Cooper has turned things around.
In just one week, the most exciting week of the season will be upon us. Wild Card weekend has always been a favorite week of mine because of the quality of games and the excitement that happens in the first round of the playoffs. One of the teams that will be playing next week will be none other than the Dallas Cowboys.
Entering Week 17, the Cowboys are locked into the No.4 seed in the NFC and will host a playoff game in the first round of the playoffs. However, they are anything but favorites to come out of the conference. According to Bovada, the Cowboys are just 12-1 underdogs to win the NFC. But those odds may be a little too low.
When you examine the Cowboys roster and how they play football, they might have the right recipe to be a threat to some of the top teams in the conference. Here are three reasons Dallas could be the team to come out of the NFC when it’s all said and done.
1. The Cowboys Can Shorten Games
One thing the Cowboys do very well is they play “their game” each week. Dallas loves to grind out the clock by using their run game, and they force their opponent into fewer possessions than what they are typically used to having. On the season, the Cowboys’ opponents have had a total of 171 possessions, the second-fewest in the NFL.
Total number of opponent’s possessions in 2018: pic.twitter.com/KjihifhilR
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 28, 2018
Dallas shortens the game and makes you play efficient football against their elite defense. Opponents typically aren’t used to playing this “slow,” and it gets them off rhythm. Look no further than when the Cowboys took on Drew Brees and the Saints. Dallas held the Saints to just nine possessions in the game, one of which was a kneel down before halftime. Despite the Cowboys not having the most explosive offense in the league, they know how to grind out the clock.
Dallas will lean on their run game, specifically Ezekiel Elliott, to run down the clock. Assuming the score is close, expect Elliott’s touches to exceed 30 in the playoffs. For the Cowboys, that is their winning recipe.
2. Dallas Limits The Number of Big Plays
One of the ways Dallas can limit the number of possessions in a game is that they don’t allow big plays very often. According to 360SportRadar, the Cowboys have allowed just 39 completions of 20 or more yards, the fifth-fewest in the NFL. Dallas’ strategy on defense is similar to what they do one offense; force teams to drive the length of the field, using up the clock. The Cowboys will concede yards if it means teams aren’t hitting deep shots down the field.
Dallas also relies on their red zone defense to prevent teams from scoring touchdowns. On the season, opponents are scoring touchdowns in the Cowboys’ red zone just 50 percent of the time. That’s the sixth-best rate in the entire NFL, according to Team Rankings. Due to their speed on defense, teams have a hard time scoring the closer they get to the end zone.
With Dallas’ elite red zone defense and ability to take away big plays, it’s not a surprise they rank inside the top-five in scoring defense. That is complementary football at it’s finest. Look for Dallas to force teams to dink-and-dunk their way down the field as the Cowboys look for turnover opportunities.
3. The Cowboys Can Rush The Passer
For the Cowboys to win the NFC, they will likely have to go through a gauntlet of elite quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Jared Goff are all possible quarterbacks the Cowboys could face at some point in the playoffs. But the key to stopping them is all the same; get pressure on the quarterback. That’s something Dallas has excelled at doing all season long.
For the past two seasons, Demarcus Lawrence has been arguably one of the best edge defenders in the league. While his sack totals are down a tad, he is as disruptive as ever. According to Pro Football Focus, Lawrence has 61 pressures this season, the 10th-most in the NFL. However, he has rushed the passer as the Cowboys limit possessions. Lawrence made his second-straight Pro Bowl and has the potential for a three-sack game at any moment. Look for Lawrence to be a difference-maker in the playoffs.
But where Dallas has really improved this season is opposite of Lawrence. Randy Gregory, Dallas’ second-round pick from the 2015 draft, is finally starting to come into his own. In Gregory’s last seven games, he has five sacks, two forced fumbles, 4 TFL and ten quarterback hits on 257 snaps. He has also had a few sacks negated due to penalty.
Lawrence and Gregory together as bookends create constant pressure off the edge. With Dallas’ speedy linebackers cleaning everything up underneath, offenses have had problems keeping their quarterback clean. In the playoffs, if Dallas can continue to create pressure, they should have no problem rattling the top passers in the NFC.
Dallas isn’t perfect. Their passing attack and offensive line will likely be their shortcoming this season, but they do have enough pieces on both sides of the ball to make a run. If Dak Prescott and the offense can continue to have long drives and can convert in the red zone, the Cowboys will be able to stand toe-to-toe with any team in the league. Look for Dallas to be a darkhorse candidate in the NFC.