Last week went about as well as the Dallas Cowboys could've hoped for. Their own victory over the New Orleans Saints was huge, and losses by the Redskins, Bears, Panthers, and Vikings all improved Dallas playoff positioning. Will Week 14 be as kind?
The Rams and Saints still have a big lead for those top two seeds, but everything has clustered behind them. Seven teams are within two games of each other, and Dallas is thankfully near the top of that heap at the moment.
If the season ended today, these would be your NFC playoff standings:
- Los Angeles Rams (11-1)
- New Orleans Saints (10-2)
- Chicago Bears (8-4)
- Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
- Seattle Seahawks (7-5)
- Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1)
- Carolina Panthers (6-6)
- Philadelphia Eagles (6-6)
- Washington Redskins (6-6)
- The Cowboys lost to Seattle earlier this year, but still remain the 4th seed as a division winner over a wild card team.
- The Panthers are ahead of the Eagles thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker.
- The Eagles are ahead of the Redskins thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker. They play each other again in Week 17.
- The Redskins beat the Panthers earlier this year, but their loss to Philadelphia within their own division negates that tiebreaker.
The Week 14 schedule sets up well for the Cowboys to get another boost to their playoff contention. Dallas can deliver its own haymaker to a division rival, and other teams they need to lose have tough matchups.
Here are this week's games involving the NFC playoff contenders:
Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys
The NFC East lead is on the line when the Eagles come to Dallas on Sunday. If Philly wins, they would tie the Cowboys in overall record and improve to 4-1 in the division, while Dallas would drop to 3-2.
Even if the Cowboys fall here, the rest of the schedule favors them to retake the lead. The Eagles have the Rams and Texans in their next two games, while Dallas has the Colts and Buccaneers. Both have soft Week 17 finales against the Redskins and Giants, respectively.
But Dallas isn't putting Colt McCoy and Mark Sanchez out there on Sunday. Dak Prescott has been heating up the last few weeks, and the Cowboys defense has emerged as one of the top groups in the league.
If they didn't lose their rhythm during the 10-day break, Dallas is in a great position to sweep the Eagles and tighten their grip on the NFC East.
New York Giants @ Washington Redskins
With Washington close to pulling Sonny Jurgensen out of retirement, the Redskins' status as a playoff contender is debatable. So are their chances of beating the Giants, who even with no shot at the postseason are still playing to win.
A Giants win is actually doubly good for Dallas. Not only does it help knock off Washington, but it further hurts New York's positioning in the upcoming draft.
Carolina Panthers @ Cleveland Browns
A date with the Browns used to be a good medicine for a team needing a win, but this Cleveland team isn't a pushover anymore. In fact, one could argue that they should be favored to win at home over the free-falling Panthers.
Dallas is fully invested in Carolina's continued losing. The Panthers hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys from Week 1, so we don't want them in the way in case Dallas needs a wild card spot to make the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dallas is still three games behind the Saints for a potential top-two seed, and the first-round bye that comes with it, but every little bit helps. However, one would expect that New Orleans will unleash hell on the Bucs to try to bounce back from last week. A second-straight loss, especially to a team with Tampa's issues, is highly doubtful.
Los Angeles Rams @ Chicago Bears
Dallas isn't catching the Rams at this point, so the better outcome here is a Chicago loss. It would pull the Cowboys and Bears even (assuming Dallas wins this week) both in overall record and in their record against NFC opponents. Chicago still has tough division games against the Packers and Vikings to close out the year, so Dallas would have a strong chance of moving ahead of them into the 3rd seed.
Minnesota Vikings @ Seattle Seahawks
This is a tough one to call as far as what favors Dallas more. Both teams are contenders for a wild card spot, so the Cowboys benefit from either losing.
Seattle has a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas and they are currently tied in overall record. If Dallas were to need a wild card spot to make the playoffs, the Seahawks would be our biggest problem.
The Vikings are also right there, currently one game behind the Cowboys. If they finished with the same number of wins, Minnesota would have the advantage since they have a tie on their overall record. That gives them a slightly higher win percentage, and thus the tiebreaker if needed.
Again, this all comes down to the wild card race. If Dallas keeps winning, they'll take the NFC East and make all of this moot.
But if Dallas were to lose, they need as many roads as possible to stay alive for the postseason. A Seahawks win this week all but closes that road. A Vikings win isn't quite as damaging.
It's a win-win scenario, but the slightly bigger win comes with Minnesota beating Seattle.
Takeaway Tuesday: Scott Linehan’s Job Shouldn’t Be Safe
The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like they did during their five game winning streak when they entered Lucas Oil Stadium to face a hot Indianapolis Colts team. In fact, they had one of their poorest showings of all season, failing to score a single point all game. Heading home after being shutout 23-0, there isn't much to be said about the Cowboys' performance.
Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday. This time, instead of talking about many takeaways, I needed to get one big takeaway off my chest. I hope you enjoy. Make sure to let me know how you feel about this topic in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL.
Scott Linehan's Job Shouldn't Be Guaranteed Going into the Playoffs
As tough as it is to fire one of your three main coaches when your team is headed into the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys should not rule out moving on from Scott Linehan. One win away from clinching the NFC East, it's not something you easily pull off but Linehan's play calling has been terrible all year long.
The truth is, despite Dak Prescott's struggles and a disastrous offensive line, the offense shouldn't be as inefficient as it is.
Watching a unit that counts with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott run a screen pass to Allen Hurns on fourth down and 14 was truly a microcosm of what this year has been for the offense.
Despite having a playoff berth practically clinched, the Cowboys should consider a change at offensive coordinator. Even if they don't fire Linehan, it's clear his play-calling is not good and could cost this team a real opportunity at a legit shot in the postseason. It would be an aggressive measure, without a doubt. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar by firing John DeFillippo a week ago. Based on their 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, being aggressive sometimes pays.
The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott and yet they continue to misuse him. Whether it's turning their backs on their star tailback or over-using him, this offense has a hard time reaching balance. Dak Prescott's strengths could be exploited even more, but this OC refuses to do so.
As hard as it is to make a drastic change in coaching two weeks before the regular season ends, it truly could end up being a great move by the front office. Sure, Amari Cooper has had monster games since joining the Cowboys, but he could be even more dangerous under another coach.
Cowboys versus Colts was a coaching battle between Scott Linehan and former Dallas Cowboys LB coach, Matt Eberflus. It was the matchup of the week, and one we expected to be fun. Instead, we saw one side completely dominate the other. In the NFL, coaching matters. Probably even more than talent on a roster.
The biggest problem would be, who'd take over play-calling?
Since there isn't a promising candidate within the team, the team's only option would probably be letting HC Jason Garrett take over. It may not be ideal, but it could end up being an improvement over Linehan. Of course, it could also let the front office see what Garrett has to offer as a play caller and consider that when deciding how this coaching staff will look like in 2019.
It's unlikely that we see such a thing occur for the Cowboys, but if the offense has another letdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't see how the front office doesn't at least consider this. They should.
Ezekiel Elliott Productive in Cowboys Blowout Loss to Colts
It was as ugly of a performance as we’ve seen from the Dallas Cowboys in the Jason Garrett era. For the first time in a decade and a half, the Cowboys were shut out and it was a game full of bad pretty much everywhere you looked. Everywhere accept Ezekiel Elliott.
What a waste!
Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line played well for much of the game even with All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin missing his first career start and losing starting Left Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with an eye injury.
On the day, Ezekiel Elliott carries the ball 18 times for 87 yards and added another seven receptions for 41. 25 touches for 128 total yards is a good game, but with nothing else going right for the Cowboys it was a game that ultimately didn’t matter.
The one play where Elliott and the offensive line failed to come through was early in the game in a fourth and one that the Colts defense seemed to have snuffed out and blew up from the start. Elliott was able to convert a fourth and one later in the game. It looked like Elliott was close to breaking one for a long run several times but got tripped up at the end of the runs. He was his typical self this week. Taking runs that looked to be going for a loss and turning them into positive gains.
In the race for the NFL's rushing title, Elliott has extended his lead on Todd Gurley to nearly 100 yards rushing. At 1,349 rushing yards on the season, Elliott will have a great shot to set a career high in rushing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants remaining on the schedule. The Bucs have allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season while the Giants have allowed the fifth most rushing yards and the seventh most rushing touchdowns in 2018.
It was a horrendous loss at a time when the Cowboys could have locked up the NFC East and there is zero excuse for it. They got out coached, out played, and were beaten physically on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen very often, especially to the defense.
But if we're looking for something positive to take away from this game, it's that with all the offensive line injuries and the poor play of the passing game, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game continues to find ways to shine. With as bad as the loss was, that's something to hang your hat on.
All the Cowboys need to do moving forward is Feed Zeke!
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Division Clinch with Shutout Loss at Colts
What is there to say about the Dallas Cowboys week 15 performance? After five straight wins, the last three coming at home, the Cowboys have only a return home to look forward to, facing the 5-9 Buccaneers on Sunday after a 23-0 defeat at the Colts.
Shutout for the first time since 2003, the Cowboys playoff hopes didn't take a hit despite the Redskins and Eagles winning on the road. Washington's last-second win went final just before the Colts ran the clock out on a game the Cowboys simply weren't ready for.
The Cowboys moved the ball well at times but failed to ever come away with points, opening the door for the Colts to expose this defense like it hasn't been all season. The Cowboys front four was hardly a factor on defense, allowing Colts Running Back Marlon Mack to average 5.1 yards a carry. Scoring the Colts only touchdowns, Mack and Andrew Luck assured the Cowboys running game wouldn't be a factor with their 10-0 halftime lead. Down to three backups at LG, C, and RG, Quarterback Dak Prescott stood little chance to bring the Cowboys back as the second half quickly got away from Dallas.
Internally, the Cowboys will have much more to say about their effort on Sunday, but here are just a few of my observations in the first somber edition of Sean's Scout since week nine.
- The Cowboys defensive problems up front extended well into the second level, with Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both playing one of their worst games of the season.
The Colts took a blocked Brett Maher field goal 44 yards for the game's opening score. Mack accounted for 34 of these yards and the touchdown. On his seven yard run to set up first and goal, Smith was caught taking a poor angle on Mack. The Cowboys were aggressive rushing up the field on the play, with Smith ending up being in the best position to slow Mack.
Vander Esch was sealed and couldn't fight to get off, which happened again three plays later on third and goal. Leighton looking like a rookie for the first time was just the start of the Cowboys problems, and with Sean Lee being active yet conceding starting snaps to him, it shouldn't take long for Vander Esch to figure things out again.
- Jamize Olawale's dropped touchdown on third and goal to bring up a failed fourth and one was the moment the Cowboys were taken out of this game.
This sequence was particularly deflating because the Cowboys did a great job getting down the field to have an opportunity to score. The fourth down decision to run out of a heavy formation, inviting extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, looks especially egregious when stacked against the Amari Cooper rush that picked up the Cowboys initial first down. Rookie Tight End Dalton Schultz got involved, Elliott ripped off a 24 yard run, and the Cowboys still came away empty on this drive.
A year removed from coaching the Cowboys linebackers, Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had his way with Scott Linehan's offense all afternoon, stymieing their most promising drive after Olawale should have scored easily.
- The Cowboys only chance to get back in the game was taken away from them by a Joe Looney holding call, just another example of players that had carried them through a winning streak not playing up to standard.
The Colts took the second half kickoff down the field to extend the lead to 17-0. On fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Prescott hit an injured Cole Beasley for 18 yards to the Colts' 23-yard line. The Cowboys red zone offense certainly doesn't provide the confidence that Dallas would finish the drive, but Looney's hold negated Beasley's catch and forced a punt.
The Colts tacked on a field goal and finished out the game without the Cowboys threatening again. Looney played down to the level of Adam Redmond to his left, who replaced Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Connor Williams in for Zack Martin - though I thought Williams held up fairly well and should be in play to earn more snaps wherever needed.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys can regroup and still accomplish everything they set out for this season, forced to make this loss to the Colts and afterthought like their last one to the Titans became. A five game win streak as a response is out of reach, but a streak of just one is all Dallas needs to clinch the NFC East and focus on improvements for the playoffs.
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