We're at the halfway point of the 2018 NFL season and the playoffs are starting come into focus. Therefore, starting now and for as long as the Dallas Cowboys have a shot at making the tournament, we will start a weekly breakdown of the scenarios and games that can impact their playoff positioning.
This early on, nobody is technically eliminated from the playoffs yet. But teams like the 49ers and Giants with a 1-7 record, or even the Cardinals at 2-6, aren't really worth talking about.
So, barring some incredible fluke, here are the NFC teams currently competing for playoff spots and where they'd finish if the season ended now:
- Los Angeles Rams (8-0)
- New Orleans Saints (6-1)
- Washington Redskins (5-2)
- Chicago Bears (4-3)
- Carolina Panthers (5-2)
- Seattle Seahawks (4-3)
- Minnesota Vikings (4-3-1)
- Green Bay Packers (3-3-1)
- Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)
- Atlanta Falcons (3-4)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)
- Dallas Cowboys (3-4)
- Detroit Lions (3-4)
- The Packers are ahead of the Eagles thanks to a better record against NFC opponents.
- The Falcons are ahead of Bucs, Cowboys, and Lions thanks to a better record against NFC opponents.
- The Bucs are ahead of the Cowboys thanks to a better record against NFC opponents.
- The Cowboys are ahead of the Lions thanks to a head-to-head victory in Week 4.
Last week, I wrote about how winning the NFC East would likely be Dallas only road to the playoffs. The current standings really drive that point home; Dallas is not only behind Carolina and Seattle in record, but has head-to-head losses to both teams this season.
It will be much easier for Dallas to catch up to Washington, who they get to play again to erase that tiebreaker, than the non-division teams. Even if the Panthers or Seahawks falter, there are a lot of other teams between them and the Cowboys who could scoop up those Wild Card spots.
Week 9 has some intriguing matchups that could cause movement in these standings. Let's take a look at the schedule:
Chicago Bears @ Buffalo Bills
The Cowboys need some of those NFC North teams to start losing. The Bears are the division leader right now by a hair, and they're still the team with the least proven quarterback.
It's still early enough that a lot can happen, with some teams like Chicago still having nine games left on the schedule. If Dallas can't win the division, they are counting on few teams' seasons to take an ugly turn.
Unfortunately, the 2-6 Bills aren't likely to give Chicago much trouble.
Detroit Lions @ Minnesota Vikings
As long as they don't get ahead of Dallas in overall record, the Lions can hang losses on their division rivals all they want. Thanks to beating Detroit in week 4, the Cowboys would be happy to watch them cause trouble for the rest of the NFC North.
Again, this is all about clearing a path for a Wild Card spot if needed. It's not the best bet for Dallas making the playoffs, but it'd be nice to have an alternative route.
Atlanta Falcons @ Washington Redskins
A Falcons win is clearly the lesser of evils from the Cowboys' perspective. While it does keep them ahead of Dallas in the playoff standings, it brings the Redskins down a peg in the far more important NFC East race.
It will be a strength vs strength matchup between the Atlanta offense and Washington defense. I would argue that the Redskins have been more lucky than good this year, and hopefully the Falcon will expose that while giving the Cowboys some help.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers
If a non-division team has a head-to-head tiebreaker over you, you root for them to either win their division or drop out of the race. With the Saints looking like the class of the NFC South, Dallas needs for the Panthers to start losing.
Like we discussed with the Atlanta-Washington game, Tampa Bay winning is ultimately better for the Cowboys right now. Dallas gets chances to one-up the Falcons and Bucs later this season.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Seattle Seahawks
Any Seattle losses are great going forward, and especially if they don't benefit another NFC teams. With the Rams unlikely to fall out of the top spot in the NFC West, we need the Seahawks to plummet out of the Wild Card mix.
There is almost never a scenario where you'd root for the NFC team to beat an AFC opponent. It would take one convoluted mess of a situation for that to work in Dallas' favor.
Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints
With both of these teams likely winning their divisions, the outcome here doesn't help the Cowboys much one way or the other. However, you might favor the Rams for one slight reason.
The Rams have nearly a three-game edge on Seattle in their division, while the Saints are only one game up on the Panthers. Dallas still has New Orleans on its schedule in Week 13, but have already lost to the Panthers.
Therefore, in terms of just avoiding a head-to-head tiebreaker down the road, Dallas at least has a shot at getting one on the Saints. They've already lost that chance with Carolina, who they'd prefer to just win the NFC South to keep them out of the Wild Cards.
Green Bay Packers @ New England Patriots
Again, no reason to root against the AFC. It clearly behooves the Cowboys for the Packers to fall behind them in the standings.
Tennessee Titans @ Dallas Cowboys
As always, none of this really matters if Dallas doesn't handle its own business. They have a great chance to get back to .500 with the Titans visiting.
A win here pulls Dallas even with the Eagles at 4-4, with Philly currently on their bye week. If Washington does fall to the Falcons, that means a 5-3 record for the Skins. Things get very close again in the NFC East.
So yeah, all the other stuff around the NFC is great if it goes out way. But a Dallas win and a Washington loss would more than suffice for Week 9.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
What Would a Successful Season Mean for Kellen Moore’s Future?
Out of every chess piece moved by the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, the decision to name 30-year old Kellen Moore might be the most interesting one. Not only that, but it could be the one that makes the biggest impact on the team. After all, the Cowboys are ready to go talent wise.
With Kellen Moore taking up a new role, it's intriguing to imagine what a successful season would mean for his future with the Dallas Cowboys. Truth be told, Moore is in a pretty fortunate position to debut as an offensive coordinator. He'll be driving a unit full of talented players with almost no weak links. Last year, it wasn't the lack of quality players lined up that had the offense struggling throughout the season, but the guy in charge.
At first, the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver clearly blew up on the Cowboys face. The passing game in Dallas needed a spark and they didn't find it until they traded a first rounder for Amari Cooper. Cooper's impact on the team was clear right away as he put on impressive performances on a weekly basis.
But even when Cooper was at his best, the offense still presented relevant struggles. Despite getting more first downs, the Cowboys still had trouble scoring touchdowns when in the red zone and kept leaving points on the field.
Although he's been a controversial conversation among members of Cowboys Nation, there are a few reasons to be excited about what Kellen Moore can bring to the table as a young offensive coordinator. Ever since he declared for the NFL Draft out of Boise State, where he ran a very complex offense on his way to become the QB with most wins in NCAA history, he was seen by many as an extremely smart prospect. Many expected him to have a mediocre career as a player, but saw him as a potential coach down the line.
Now it's his chance to prove the world just how smart he is and his potential as a coach. He will not only be proving it to the Cowboys organization, but all of the NFL and college football teams. Don't forget what NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mentioned a few months ago.
I've mentioned this before- Kellen Moore is a rising star and he'll be in the mix for HC gigs (CFB or NFL) in the near future. https://t.co/hLjOb4HAUc
With a great group of talent at his disposal, it's fair to imagine Moore having a pretty successful "rookie" season at a major coaching position. If he indeed manages to turn heads with the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2019, what does that mean for his future?
In a league that's turning to the young offensive-minded coaches thanks to guys like Sean McVay, is it possible one team decides to pull the trigger and make him an offer for a head coaching gig? It certainly would seem premature, but it's still a possibility in the NFL, where teams have become increasingly impatient with their coaches.
I definitely wouldn't be surprised if next offseason, we're concerned about another team (college or NFL) trying to snatch Moore off the Cowboys. I insist in pointing out this would be a premature decision if it does happen, since Moore has very little experience, but looking at the trend in the NFL it certainly could happen.
This might be the most important year in Kellen Moore's young career. For now, let's hope he does a good job leading Dak Prescott in his fourth year as a professional player and an offense that has a solid OL and a pretty good set of skill players.
Connor Williams Working as Left Tackle in Cowboys Practice
Second-year guard Connor Williams has been working as the Cowboys' left tackle during practice this week. While this isn't the plan for him in 2019, it does provide a glimpse into potential uses for Williams down the road and how Dallas might handle future offensive line moves.
Using Connor at LT this week has been a matter of necessity. The top players on that depth chart, Tyron Smith and Cameron Fleming, were not participating for other reasons.
With Tyron Smith getting a vet day and Cam Fleming not practicing because of a bruised shin, Connor Williams worked at left tackle Wednesday. He said it was his first left tackle snaps since he was at Texas. He said it felt like riding a bike after a little bit.
Indeed, Williams spent three years at left tackle in college. It was the last position he'd played before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by Dallas, who immediately moved him to guard.
Connor started 10 of 13 games at guard last season. He played mostly on the left side, starting Weeks 1-9, before getting injured. Xavier Su'a-Filo played well enough in his absence that Williams didn't get the starting job back when he was healthy. However, when Zack Martin had to miss a few games at the end of the year, Connor started a right guard for those two weeks.
When Martin returned for the playoffs, Williams was back as the starting left guard in both postseason games.
Tyron Smith and Cam Fleming will be your starter and backup at left tackle next year. But for 2020 and beyond, Connor Williams' ability to play tackle creates some interesting possibilities.
La'el Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Fleming will still have one year left on his deal and Dallas just spent a third-round pick on the versatile Connor McGovern. Throw in that Williams can play some tackle, and it seems as if they're covering bases for Collins eventual departure.
We could very well see a starting lineup in 2020 with McGovern at LG and Williams at RT. Another possibility is that Fleming starts at RT and Williams stays at guard, but can be moved to tackle if needed.
If nothing else, it's nice to know that Dallas has options. We may never see Connor Williams play a regular season snap at left tackle, but versatility is a great asset. It can greatly increase a player's value, and give his team some leverage and flexibility in roster management.
For the Cowboys, it does make you wonder what the future holds for the offensive line.
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