In a normal league year, the Dallas Cowboys would have concluded the regular season at this point. The lasting taste in the mouth of fans before the playoffs would be the lackluster 25-22 home loss to the Cardinals in week 17. Expectations would be nothing but the same postseason disappointment that's haunted the Cowboys since as long as I've been alive (birthdate in bio).
Instead, the Cowboys will get one more low-stakes chance to do one of two things they've succeeded at all season – beat up on an NFC East opponent, or deflect blame anywhere but internally after a loss. Dallas travels to Philadelphia this Saturday night, playing for a 6-0 divisional record that would end their regular season at 12-5. Four of the five Cowboys losses this season have come against teams already in the playoffs or fighting for their spot this weekend.
The outlier of the season remains the 30-16 beating the Denver Broncos put on the Cowboys from AT&T Stadium, for more than just the obvious reason. Not only did the Cowboys play down to a much lesser opponent back in week nine, but they were beaten so thoroughly that placing blame on the way the game was called was out of question.
Unfortunately, this hasn't been true of other games the Cowboys no-showed in, primarily on offense, and most recently vs. the Cardinals.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who played a season high 57 snaps with Keanu Neal on the COVID list, said HC Mike McCarthy's message to the team was to keep battling “against everybody, not just the other team”. WR CeeDee Lamb said he felt like the officials “dictated” a game he caught three passes in, the first for nine yards in the first quarter and the second not until the fourth quarter.
Make no mistake, the Cowboys are the most penalized team in the league this season. The call they clamored for against the Cardinals was less about a penalty, and more the late fumble-ruled-down-by-contact that allowed Arizona to kneel out the clock. The Cowboys were stripped away from a last-second chance to put up their third touchdown drive of the fourth quarter and take the lead. All of this after they were held to just a field goal through three quarters against a team playing two backups at cornerback.
The Cowboys also have a net penalty disadvantage of just -4, meaning they're drawing penalties from their opponents far more often than they'd like us to believe. The out-to-get-us narrative fits much better when scrutiny over Cowboys penalties gets too intense, perhaps only when trying to hold this team to the same preseason expectations they set themselves.
The Dallas Cowboys fanbase has seen this before. All of it. A head coach getting a pass for losing his quarterback, struggling to win the big games with all of his key players on the field, trotting out a predictable offense when games are on the line, and insisting the whole time that things are for sure better than they seem.
Sure, the Cowboys get an extra game to prove this year will be different, but even with the Eagles improbably claiming a playoff spot to spice up this matchup, there's little that four quarters can do in this regard.
To say the Cowboys haven't showed real signs of building a contending core of players for the future would be wrong. As players come and go however, the ever-growing list of reasons this team hasn't reached an NFC Championship in 25 seasons hasn't been addressed.
Yeah, I don't like the players talking about this stuff.
They got whipped. https://t.co/7BKmiCByNn
— John Williams (@john9williams) January 3, 2022
The Cowboys lost out on their already small chance to advance to the Championship Game with just one playoff win when the Packers clinched the one seed last week. This means a team that hides behind officiating errors out of their control at every turn will try and convince us they have the control and discipline to win two playoff games over the next three weeks.
The flashes of talent and coaching prowess have been there, but so too is a fair amount of skepticism complete with a pre-packaged list of excuses.