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.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Cowboys Against Atlanta
It may not have been very pretty, but the Dallas Cowboys were able to keep their playoff hopes alive by defeating the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday afternoon. It's a place that wasn't kind to them a season ago, but they were able to overcome their demons and secure a much-needed victory.
This is a game that ended up being a lot closer than it probably needed to be. Missed opportunities and mental mistakes once again plagued this Cowboys team, but they continued to scratch and claw their way in a hostile environment to put another "W" in the win column.
With the game still fresh in our minds, I thought it would be a good time to share with you what I believed was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for the Dallas Cowboys yesterday against the Atlanta Falcons. As always, please feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions in the comment section located at the end of the article.
It should come to no surprise after the way he's played these last couple weeks, but I decided to go with Running Back Ezekiel Elliott for the good this week for the Dallas Cowboys. I could have easily gone with Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch because he was definitely deserving as well, but for me Zeke edged him out by a narrow margin.
Ezekiel Elliott put the team on his back Sunday afternoon and led them to a victory, just like he did a week ago against the Philadelphia Eagles. He pretty much was the Cowboys offense yesterday, accounting for more than 200 total yards by himself. He not only finished the game as the leading rusher with 122 yards on the ground and a touchdown, but the leading receiver as well with seven catches for 79 yards.
Zeke has been absolutely dominating here recently and hopefully he can keep it up with the division rival Washington Redskins coming to town on Thanksgiving. It's a game that will likely determine the outcome of the NFC East division.
He may have made the game-winning field goal, but Kicker Brett Maher's inconsistency here lately is the bad this week for the Dallas Cowboys in my opinion. His missed extra point attempt against the Falcons came very close to costing them the victory, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a few kickers brought in Monday on a tryout basis.
Over the past several years we've kind of been spoiled by having Dan Bailey, one of the most accurate kickers to ever play the game. I believe the Cowboys made the right decision to move on from Bailey earlier this year, especially after seeing the way he's struggled with inconsistency himself in Minnesota. But, Maher's recent struggles is starting to become more and more of a concern.
We've seen too many instances this season where a missed or made field-goal impacts the outcome of the game one way or another. This week they were fortunate enough to come out on top, but just imagine how the NFC division race would look if Maher would've made the one in Washington instead of clanking it on the upright.
I could've easily went with the penalties or mental mistakes in this section this week for the Dallas Cowboys, but I ultimately decided the ugly against the Falcons was Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie being victimized once again. Opposing quarterbacks continue to throw his direction and unfortunately they're finding quite a bit of success.
I hear a lot of fans around Cowboys Nation wanting to see Jourdan Lewis get a shot at starting on the outside over Awuzie, but I don't think that's the right move at this time. I still think Awuzie is playing at a high level, but unfortunately he's just been the victim of some really good catches by receivers he's covering at the time.
Both this week against the Falcons and last week against the Eagles we saw Awuzie with tight coverage on Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffrey, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to prevent the completion from happening. That's just been the way things have gone for him this season. If he can learn to get his head around and locate the ball, he would find much more success and not be targeted as much.
What is your Good, Bad, and Ugly for the Dallas Cowboys against the Falcons?
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Leverage Defense to Reach .500 Against Falcons
The Dallas Cowboys are returning home for Thanksgiving with a 5-5 record, needing to earn road wins at Philadelphia and Atlanta in the last two weeks to do so. Sunday's revenge win at the Falcons did not come easy, as the Cowboys conceded their first touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the game.
Missed opportunities in the red zone and penalties all had a say in the Cowboys needing a walk off Brett Maher field goal to win. Running Back Ezekiel Elliott once again sparked the offense in the second half, as the Cowboys defense assured this game wouldn't be a shootout in the first 30 minutes.
Here are my observations on the Cowboys latest thrilling win, greatly increasing their chances at reclaiming the top spot in the NFC East considering the Redskins home loss to the Texans.
- A great down-the-line play from rookie Dorance Armstrong on the Falcons' opening possession to set up DeMarcus Lawrence's first sack.
The Cowboys came into this game thin across the defensive line. Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins and Defensive End Dorance Armstrong really took advantage of the opportunity, pushing the pocket against Matt Ryan and freeing up the Cowboys linebackers to be themselves.
Lawrence's sack was the play that got the Cowboys off the field on third down, but Armstrong meeting Ito Smith in the hole for no gain was as big of a play on second down. The Falcons were smart to test the interior of the Cowboys defense and use the power run to set up their vertical passing game, but Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard simply had their guys ready to play.
If Collins and Armstrong can sustain their high-energy level of play with Antwaun Woods and Daniel Ross working their way back into the Cowboys rotation at DT, this defense can reach a new level of play given their speed in the back seven and ability to give opposing offensive lines fits with just four up front.
- Cole Beasley did more than enough to make up for it, but his drop in the end zone on the Cowboys first scoring drive is one he'll want back for a while.
The Cowboys play calling on their first goal-to-go situation left a lot to be desired, but Beasley was still able to make a scoring play with the ball in his hands at the pylon. Beasley bobbled the ball going to the ground and couldn't come up with it.
On the next play, the Cowboys finally targeted Amari Cooper, although without Ezekiel Elliott on the field. It was the combination of Cooper on the outside and Elliott in the backfield that provided a boost to the Cowboys offense last week at the Eagles, and for whatever reason they went away from it consistently against the Falcons.
Beasley's 19 yard catch and run on the Cowboys final drive set them up to run Elliott and kick the game winning field goal, giving Prescott an easy target on a crossing route. These are the types of inconsistencies the Cowboys will have to happily live with as they review this win and prepare on a short week for the Redskins.
- Head Coach Jason Garrett should be questioned about how his offense handled the last drive of the first half.
Trailing by three in a game still looking for its first touchdown, the Cowboys came out firing with 29 seconds left in the first half before shutting the drive down themselves. After Elliott advanced the ball to the Cowboys 35 and prompted a timeout, his catch and run for eight yards was the final play of the half.
I have no problem with the Cowboys getting the ball safely into the hands of Elliott, but after gaining positive yards on two receptions it's inexcusable to sit on a timeout without attempting a pass to the end zone.
- The Cowboys play calling improved in the second half, evident on Dak Prescott's rushing touchdown to give the Cowboys a 12-9 lead.
Again, taking the good with the bad, the Cowboys did go to this zone read look one too many times in the second half. From four yards out against a defense playing without one of their most talented players in Linebacker Deion Jones, Prescott faking to Elliott and keeping himself is as smart and safe a play as Linehan could have called.
Prescott's score was followed by Leighton Vander Esch's second interception in as many weeks, allowing the Cowboys to go right back to hammering the football. It took just two carries for Elliott to cover 31 yards and put the Cowboys ahead 19-9 off the turnover.
His 23-yard touchdown was sprung by Right Guard Zack Martin, who deserves a ton of credit for not only dealing with an injury sustained last week but seemingly finding an even higher level of play since then to motivate his teammates.
Joe Looney filled in well for Travis Frederick once again, and Xavier Su'a-Filo replaced a now-healthy Connor Williams for the second straight game, making Martin's elite level of play much more important.
Martin's lone mistake in this game came at a costly moment though, as a false start penalty backed the Cowboys up before punting it back to the Falcons for the tying score. Although the penalty created a third and 13 that Dallas used to keep the clock running on a dump off to Elliott, their second down play call to go with another zone read was costly as well.
Prescott lost two yards on a play that didn't fool the Falcons in the slightest, creating the original third and eight situation.
- Chidobe Awuzie was actually in good position on Julio Jones' fourth quarter TD, but as has been the case all season he reacted late and was beat with the ball.
Awuzie ran stride for stride with Jones, doing his best to force the Falcons best receiver towards the sideline. To Jones' credit, he was able to stay true to his route and run under a perfect pass from Matt Ryan.
Awuzie's fate was sealed on the play when he failed to react in time to jump with Jones, who simply elevated over the Cowboys struggling cornerback to give the Falcons new life in this game. Awuzie has been given every opportunity to be the Cowboys starter across from Byron Jones, trusted by Kris Richard to be a valuable part of this defense.
Quarterbacks in need of a completion have been able to pick on Awuzie far too much this season. The Cowboys don't appear to be in any rush to change this, as Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is designated to handling jet sweeps for the Cowboys offense while Anthony Brown remains the starter in the slot.
It was Brown that struggled through all of 2017 before finding his form again this year, perhaps giving Awuzie some hope that he can respond sooner rather than later.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The early slate of games proved to be a massive one for NFC East implications. The Cowboys escaped Atlanta with a win, and minutes later the Texans put the finishing touches on a win at the Redskins. Much earlier in the afternoon, unbeknownst to the Cowboys fighting for their life at the time, the Redskins also lost Quarterback Alex Smith.
Smith broke his tibia on a hit from J.J. Watt, and will need season ending surgery according to his Head Coach Jay Gruden.
This division has been waiting for a team to seize control of it all season. Realizing this, the Cowboys didn't sulk through their poor start and made the right moves to play into contention - playing as the desperate team that often achieves a lot in this game through their last eight quarters.
Cowboys Enjoy Double Win as Redskins Lose
The Dallas Cowboys looked great on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. There were very few things to complain about their last showing and now that they're back at .500, the season doesn't seem lost as previously thought. After all, the NFC East has been a mediocre division so far in 2018 and the division title is not that far from the Cowboys' grasp.
In fact, if they win this Thursday on Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys would become the NFC East's division leader. The Washington Redskins were off to a great start on the season but after falling to the Houston Texans on Sunday, they only hold a one game-lead over the Cowboys.
This will be the second time of the year these two teams face each other. Back in week 7, the Cowboys played one of their worse games on the year in Washington. Many times the Cowboys shot themselves on the foot until they failed to get to overtime as Brett Maher's FG attempt bounced off the goalpost.
This time though, things should be different.
The team is on a two-game winning streak on the road against the last two NFC Champions. Of course, neither of these teams are the same than they were in previous years, but Dallas has done a good job these past two weeks. Some staff members might be coaching for their jobs as the team approaches "now or never" territory to contend in 2018. Although play-calling and execution haven't been perfect, at least the offense is showing signs of life.
Both the Cowboys and the Redskins suffered key injuries on Sunday. Towards the end of the game, Cowboys' LT Tyron Smith went down injured and headed to the locker room. With his injury history and a short week on deck, it's tough to imagine Smith will suit up on Thursday.
Tyron Smith, as only he could say it: "It didn't feel good, but I'll be alright." #cowboyswire
However, the more serious injury came for the Redskins. Quarterback Alex Smith suffered a broken tibia and fibia and will end his season due to surgery. With Colt McCoy playing at QB for Washington, winning the NFC East will become an easier task for the Cowboys.
But they can't take the win for granted. This is a flawed, inconsistent team we're talking about. On a short week, it'll require a lot of effort to beat their hated division rivals.
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