It’s finally playoff season. It is the best time of the year, and it feels like Dallas has been waiting for this moment since October.
Not to dismiss the second half of the regular season, but it feels like Dallas has always known they were playoff-bound since that week six win in New England.
Since the bye, though, this team never really lived up to the hype they created the first eight weeks of the season.
It was an up and down second half of the season and a somewhat tumultuous one. Fans were subjected to a four-game win streak and losses in three of four games, including an agonizing defeat on Thanksgiving Day to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore were under fire for much of the latter half of the season.
Is Dak Prescott really elite?
Does Prescott need a running game to succeed?
Is Kellen Moore overmatched?
All these questions were being asked ad nauseam.
The offensive line and even the receivers didn’t escape the blame, either. There were experiments on the offensive line, with Connor McGovern replacing Connor Williams and then later being benched for Williams.
The wide receivers did not generate the greatest separation and dropped too many balls.
Everything came back to Prescott, though. He appeared to be beaten up by the media almost every week for not performing up to expectations, and quite frankly, much deserved criticism.
The offense saw stretches in which they had problems moving the ball, including a three-game stretch where the offense was converting less than 25% of its third downs and going three and out at a rate of 46.2%.
At times, the red zone offense also struggled, going 4 for 12 in the money zone during a three-week period from weeks 13-15.
The funny thing about that is that Dallas won all three of those games on the backs of the defense.
The Dallas defense forced 12 turnovers during this stretch and, the unthinkable happened, the Cowboys’ defense was carrying the offense. Something that would have been absurd to think of in the preseason.
Trevon Diggs and rookies Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa were the talks of the town right off the bat. It was clear early on this defense was going to exceed expectations for the season, and they did.
The rebuilding of this defense seemed like it was a multi-year fix, but a season after being historically bad, Dallas finished first in takeaways and top seven in scoring defense.
This has a lot to do with the emergence of Micah Parsons as a standout defensive player and the continued growth of Trevon Diggs, who lit the world on fire to start the season.
The defense played with a lot of energy and speed with growing confidence every week. Players like Jayron Kearse came out of nowhere to play a pivotal and impactful role on this defense as a free agent on a small deal. Kearse played over 88% of the defensive snaps and brought a swagger to the defense.
Longtime Cowboys such as Anthony Brown and Randy Gregory also came to play this season. Brown has a reputation with the fans as a poster boy for getting torched. And he did have some bad moments this season, but he was very consistent and pretty solid in large part.
He was one of the league leaders in pass breakups and played very well in man coverage.
Randy Gregory had perhaps his best season as a pro and helped Dallas become a top-three unit in quarterback pressures and top-four unit in pressure rate percentage per pro football reference.
The man at the helm of this operation, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, also needs to get a lot of the credit. Quinn displayed a knack for adapting to his personnel and putting players in the best spot to succeed. Dan Quinn has a legitimate chance to win assistant coach of the year and very well may be the favorite.
It would be remiss not to mention the refs when talking about the Cowboy season. The Cowboys led the league in penalties and were second in penalty yards. Cowboys players and fans were complaining and often blaming the refs almost after every loss.
Cowboys players even at times commented on how they had to play against the opponent and the refs. It is a bit petty and nauseating to blame the refs for losses. That is not a good look, and it’s something Mike McCarthy should not condone or encourage.
While it is true, there were some suspect calls throughout the season and sometimes in big moments, like in the Buccaneers, Raiders, Cardinals games. The fact is that Dallas didn’t play well enough to win any of those games (apart from the Bucs game).
The Cowboys enter the postseason on what was hopefully a confidence booster against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 18, in which they scored 51 points, and Prescott threw for five touchdowns.
Cowboy’s fans have high hopes for this playoff run. They should. When this team is clicking, they are one of the best teams in the league on both the offense and defensive sides of the ball.
The offense has proven it is capable of being explosive and dangerous; heck, they finished the year first in both offensive yards and points per game.
However, there have been too many stretches where the offense looks out of sync, robotic and predictable. Could the Cowboys have been holding back their playbook? Many think this is a possibility, and it is possible, but it’s hard to believe this offense was saving itself for the playoffs for the past nine weeks.
Prescott and McCarthy failed to fully acknowledge and admit that the offense was in a slump. But that is what happened for much of the past two months, whether they care to admit it or not.
It’s time for the Cowboys to play their best ball of the season, but an early exit with some of the same struggles fans have been accustomed to seeing recently will make for a long offseason with plenty of commentary.
However, a few playoff wins and, ideally, a Super Bowl appearance can put the offensive slump talks to bed.
We will find out how this journey starts this Sunday afternoon.