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Forecasting the Cowboys First Playoff Opponent

Jess Haynie

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Dez Bryant

For the last several weeks I’ve been giving you a rundown of all the NFC playoff-relevant games and how they could alter the seeding. This week was no different as there is plenty still undecided in the conference.

Only two things are certain right now; the Dallas Cowboys are the #1 seed and the New York Giants are the #5 seed and first Wild Card team. Everything else is still in flux.

In just a few days the Giants will learn if they’re traveling to Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay, or Detroit for their first-round game. All four of those teams have the potential to be the #4 seed. Of the four, the Packers are the only team who don’t have a shot at being the #2 seed and getting the other first-round bye.
Obviously, Dallas has to wait a little longer to know who they’ll be hosting in the Division Round. But if we look at the Week 17 games and project the likely winners, it narrows the field quite a bit.

  • Ezekiel ElliottPackers @ Lions
  • Giants @ Washington
  • Saints @ Falcons
  • Seahawks @ 49ers

There is the slimmest of possibilities that the Tampa Bay Bucs could sneak into the playoffs, but it would take such a unlikely mix of game outcomes that we’ll just leave it alone. This article is all about probability.

Looking at those four games, let’s go ahead and assume that the Falcons and Seahawks will handle their business against lesser opponents. That would immediately lock in Atlanta as the 2nd seed and Seattle as the 3rd. It would narrow Dallas’ potential opponent down to the Giants, Lions, Packers, or Washington.

The last meeting between the Giants and Washington was a narrow 29-27 victory for New York at home. The rematch takes place in Washington with the home team playing for their lives. The Giants have nothing to gain or lose.

It’s been reported that the Giants plan to treat the game like any other, playing starters and going for the win. However, let’s give Washington the benefit of the doubt as the home team with far greater motivation.

A Washington victory guarantees them the 6th seed and final playoff spot. The loser of the Packers-Lions game would miss the playoffs and the winner would be the 4th seed.

It’s hard to pick against the Packers this week. Despite being the road team, they have momentum and more offensive firepower. The Lions didn’t look very good last week in Dallas, although that could’ve been due to looking ahead to this week’s division showdown. I’m going to go ahead and predict a Packers win.
Quick recap; Atlanta, Seattle, Green Bay, and Washington all win. Your NFC Playoff seeding would be:

  1. Dallas Cowboys Player Profile: QB #4 Dak Prescott 1Dallas Cowboys
  2. Atlanta Falcons
  3. Seattle Seahawks
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. New York Giants
  6. Washington

This lineup means that the Wild Card Round of the playoffs would have Seattle hosting Washington and either Green Bay or Detroit hosting the Giants. As the top team in the NFC, Dallas would play whoever the lowest-seeded team is that’s still alive after the first round.

If Washington were to upset Seattle then they would be Dallas’ opponent. Far more likely, though, is that Dallas would get the winner of the Giants-Packers game.

Eli Manning won’t be afraid of Lambeau Field. He has won their twice in previous playoffs, both of which came on the way to an eventual Super Bowl championship. Overall he is 2-2 in Green Bay and 4-4 against the Packers in his career.

One of those road loss came this year in Week 5; the Packers won 23-16 despite two interceptions by Aaron Rodgers. Both teams are playing at a much higher level now than they were at that point in the season.

Picking a winner in that game is fairly empty. I could talk myself into either team. If you want to give the Packers the benefit of the doubt as the home team then you can, but Eli’s won games there before with arguably less talented teams.

So, if everything in Week 17 and the Wild Card round goes according to probability, Dallas will be hosting either the Packers or Giants in their first playoff game. Obviously, underdogs and upsets emerge often. Dallas could wind up playing just about anybody.

Much like the weather, forecasting in sports is tricky business. For now, this is the closest thing to a prediction that we have.

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Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I’ll be sure to respond!

Star Blog

Are the Dallas Cowboys Building a Championship Defense?

Sean Martin

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Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 3

Three of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs — a win away from the Super Bowl — ranked within the top four defensively in yards per game allowed this season. The other is the defending-champion New England Patriots, who of course were expected to reach yet another AFC Championship game, thanks to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Somewhere between this field, losing their 2017 hopes at a deep playoff run to injuries, suspensions, and just poor execution at times, are the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys ranked eighth in yards allowed per game at 318.1 this season.

On the surface, all this provides hope that typically springs eternal around the league through the offseason.

It has been far too long since the Cowboys defense matched the skill level of the team’s offense, but Rod Marinelli’s unit (not exactly by design) outplayed that of Scott Linehan’s at times through this 9-7 campaign.

This defensive rebuild in Dallas began with the admission that this group had reached their ceiling in the offseason, as the Cowboys let long-time starters like CB Morris Claiborne, CB Brandon Carr, S Barry Church (now with the Jaguars), and S J.J. Wilcox go in free agency.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense?

Dallas Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Chidobe Awuzie, S Xavier Woods (AP Photo / Ron Jenkins)

For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, looking to turn over an entire secondary in a division featuring Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, and Kirk Cousins as quickly as the Cowboys did was a risky move. Their confidence in hitting on draft picks paid off though.

The Cowboys’ bright future is predicated on the likes of CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis, and S Xavier Woods.

With two young starters at cornerback, the sky truly is the limit the this Cowboys defense. And they’ll play in support of an offense with more than enough talent to return to form in 2018.

As it stands now under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys defense is built to keep everything in front of them, and get bodies to the football. This coverage-friendly approach could be taken to new heights with Lewis and Awuzie on the outside, along with Anthony Brown finding a home in the slot. All three cornerbacks have excelled at using their speed, length, and technique to get their hands on passes.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 1

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

Of course, games are won in the trenches, where the idea of the Cowboys defensive line ever rising to the level of their offensive line was laughable until recently. Whether it’s with the franchise tag or a long-term extension, sack-artist DeMarcus Lawrence looks to be an all-important member of this entire team moving forward.

A healthy Lawrence was a nightmare for opposing right tackles in 2017. He earned a national spotlight each week on his way to the quarterback 14-and-a-half times. Making it look easy at times, Lawrence is a refined rusher with the speed and power to win inside and out.

The RDE position remains a sore spot in need of talent as this Cowboys defense looks to take the next step, but there’s hope for the likes of Randy Gregory, Charles Tapper, and Taco Charlton to get the job done, along with veteran starter Tyrone Crawford.

With Crawford at RDE for much of 2017, running the ball against the Cowboys front was a tall order. His ability to capture the corner against left tackles came as a pleasant surprise to many, and once in position, the defensive captain chased down plenty of plays.

Tyrone Crawford wasn’t the only pleasant surprise on the Dallas Cowboys defensive line this season.

Rookie Taco Charlton looked like an entirely different player to close a first year in Dallas that began with completely uninspiring results. Charlton — having the physical traits to play at the next level — was never a question out of Michigan.

He may never be a player to take over games for a defense, which the Cowboys couldn’t have expected to find at DE selecting 28th overall, but an improved player at DE and DT could be an incredibly valuable asset for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond.

This leaves the Cowboys linebacker corps, where we find the best example of young potential on the entire defense. Amazingly playing in all 16 games, LB Jaylon Smith is in line to take a massive step forward in year two.

Smith closed his season looking enticingly close to the player he was at Notre Dame, an encouraging sign as the Cowboys look to become less dependent on Sean Lee on this side of the ball.

Lee and Smith paired together would give the Cowboys a middle-of-the-field presence to rival the best in the league. Both players have exceptional range and awareness to run down plays from sideline to sideline.

Anthony Hitchens, an impending free agent, is another valuable piece at LB with his ready ability to play all three positions at a relatively high level.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 2

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

Stefon Diggs racing to the end zone with no time left to send the Vikings to the NFC Championship game will be the lasting image of this past Divisional Round weekend, an offensive play that will live on forever.

A closer look at these games and the teams that survived them reveals a collective trust in defenses, a trust the Cowboys could be blissfully close to with their own young defense.

The Cowboys are likely losing one of the smarter minds behind their defense in recent years, with Matt Eberflus ticketed for Josh McDaniel’s staff, and are still in need of a secondary coach after not retaining Joe Baker. In a league where better talent typically prevails though, the possibility of the Cowboys building a championship defense for next season and beyond may not be far off.

With defenses in Jacksonville and Philadelphia providing the hope that both teams can pull off the impossible and reach the Super Bowl on Sunday, will defensive potential be enough for Dallas to get through this long offseason and start the even longer path back to their first NFC Championship game in 21 seasons?

Tell us what you think about “Are the Dallas Cowboys Building a Championship Defense?” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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Star Blog

Can Rico Gathers Make Cowboys Offense More “Dak-Friendly”?

Brian Martin

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Rico Gathers, Rams

The Dallas Cowboys unfortunately face all kinds of questions heading into the 2018 offseason. Right now, there are no answers to those questions, which means we’ll just have to sit back and take a wait-and-see approach. But, one question that absolutely has to be answered is how to make the Cowboys offense more Dak Prescott friendly.

Offensively, the Dallas Cowboys had an extremely disappointing year in 2017. Suspensions and injuries are the main culprits for the disappointment, but the Dallas Cowboys haven’t really changed things much in the scheme or personnel to help Dak Prescott succeed.

The sad truth is, the Dallas Cowboys are still operating as if Tony Romo is the starting quarterback. It’s pretty much the same personnel and scheme, but it really doesn’t suit Prescott.

It’s time for that to change. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that will happen overnight.

The Cowboys spent years putting together the personnel to help Romo. Just when they thought they had the missing piece — by drafting Ezekiel Elliott, Romo sustained a back injury, pretty much ending his career.

Anyway you look at it, the offensive personnel needs to improve in order to make this team more “Dak-friendly”.

Enter Tight End Rico Gathers.

Rico Gathers

Dallas Cowboys TE Rico Gathers

The Dallas Cowboys have invested two years in Rico Gathers’ development, but with the exception of a few flashes in preseason, they haven’t benefited from the fruits of their labor. The 2018 season should be Gathers’ coming-out party.

We all witnessed what the Cowboys offense looks like when they are forced to rely on the passing game. Dak Prescott struggled to find any kind of consistency throwing the ball — with the options he had at his disposal in 2017 — while Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension.

Defenses decided to take Prescott’s favorite target out of the equation by bracketing Cole Beasley in coverage. Then, they also devoted extra attention Dez Bryant‘s way, making it difficult to get him the ball.

The only other option left really was Jason Witten on simple check downs.

And that is what the future Hall of Famer has been reduced to.

Jason Witten is no longer the threat he once was. Yes, he is still a reliable target, but his age is starting to catch up to him, which has unfortunately robbed him of some of his athleticism. We will no longer see Witten stretch the field down the seam, or run many routes further than 10 yards.

That’s why I think Rico Gathers could be a difference maker in 2018, especially for Dak Prescott.

Prescott needs more than an outlet receiver at the TE position. No offense to Jason Witten, but that’s pretty much what he has become at this point in his career.

Rico Gathers on the other hand is not only different from Witten, but also provides a different skill set than any other TE on the Cowboys roster. He’s a big target with athleticism, who cannot only move the chains, but stretch the field and break tackles in the open field.

Gathers’ sheer size alone creates mismatch problems against smaller defensive backs and linebackers, but his athleticism should allow him to create separation, something which fits into what Prescott needs from his receivers.

There is no reason why the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff can’t find a way to incorporate Rico Gathers’ unique skill set into the offense. They may not truly trust him to be an every down player, but that’s not happening anyway, not with Jason Witten on the roster.

If it was me, I would have a few packages in the playbook specifically designed for Gathers. I not only think this will help him grow as a player, but help the Cowboys offense become more “Dak-friendly”.

Can Rico Gathers make the Cowboys offense more “Dak-friendly”?

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Months Later, it Seems Jaguars S Barry Church was Right

Kevin Brady

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Months Later, Jaguars Safety Barry Church Wa E

About five months ago, before the 2017 NFL season had even begun, former Cowboys safety Barry Church made comments which made Cowboys Nation scratch their heads. Now a Jacksonville Jaguar, Church said his current team was more talented than his former, the Dallas Cowboys.

At the time, many fans and writers alike laughed off his comments and chalked it up to typical preseason hype. Most people thought Church was crazy for suggesting a 13-3 team had less talent than the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team led by Blake Bortles.

Well, five months later, it’s become clear Barry Church was right.

Brian Chojnacki on Twitter

Jaguars safety Barry Church says he feels this Jags team has more talent than his #Cowboys squad last season. Dallas went 13-3. https://t.co/EcbxfUGsvy

This weekend the Jaguars went on the road to Pittsburgh, and came away with a wire-to-wire victory in January. The Jaguars were the more physical team from start to finish, and dominated from the opening kick off.

On the road.

Against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now the Jaguars are preparing to do something the Cowboys haven’t done in two decades: play in a conference championship game.

The Jaguars and Cowboys will be linked for the next decade or so due to decisions each made during the 2016 NFL Draft. And while it appeared the Cowboys pushed all the right buttons in 2016, it now looks as if the Jaguars are preparing to compete for AFC supremacy for years to come.

With their talented secondary, dominant defense, and physical rushing attack, the Jaguars have built their team in the mold of past champions.

The Cowboys have attempted to do some of the same, but it certainly looks as if Barry Church was correct in his preseason assessment of the two rosters.

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