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.
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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