Last Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys defense had one of the most important tests they've faced all season. Dan Bailey had just kicked a field goal to extend the lead 26-20, with 2:58 remaining. Lots of us even wanted Jason Garret to go for it on fourth down so they could score seven points and end the game, just to not put the game on the defense (probably remembering how a lot of the 2015 games ended).
On fourth and 12, Orlando Scandrick sealed the win with the third INT of the night. All season long, I've been worried about how this defense will hold up against playoff teams. But as I watched that game, even though they surrendered 20 points, I realized this defense will be good enough in January.
Doug Martin (a top-tier RB) was limited to 42 yards on the ground, Mike Evans (a top-tier WR) was limited to four receptions for a mere 59 yards and Jameis Winston (a QB on the rise) ended the night with three interceptions.
The secondary has been playing good football, and have produced four INTs in the last two weeks. Byron Jones, Jeff Heath and Anthony Brown were the last players I thought could get an interception, and they each have one now.
Brandon Carr has gotten a lot of hate throughout the season, but he's actually played great against some quite good WRs. Morris Claiborne, who was playing the best football in his career will come back and give this defense a big improvement. JJ Wilcox will also be back. This secondary will be able to matchup against a playoff WR group. They won't shut the air attack down, but with these players they'll be able to do just enough.
Sean Lee is playing out of his mind, and should be in the talk for Defensive Player of the Year. He is the main reason why the Cowboys have the number 1 defense against the run. Hitchens and Durant are no Sean Lee, but they do their job and with Wilson I'd say the depth is good enough at the position. Le'Veon Bell, Doug Martin and every other running back that has faced the Cowboys defense haven't been able to surpass the 100-yard mark.
Now for the defensive line
This is truly a complicated topic. The pass rush is not great, we've known that all year. Even though, I think it'll be fine. They've been doing a good job against decent offensive lines. There are no stars in this group but the position is deep.
This week Randy Gregory is back and he's reportedly in great shape to play, and DeMarcus Lawrence is aiming to return soon. The Jack and Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa, David Irving, Maliek Collins, all of these guys bring this group great depth that will be able to do what they accomplished last Sunday Night.
David Irving came late in the second half with fresh legs and he was a beast. He ended the night with two sacks, four hurries and he got a piece of Winston's arm on Jeff Heath's interception (these are Khalil Mack kind of numbers). This defensive line has great depth to make changes late in the game to get fresh legs and make plays when they really matter.
This defense has shown up all year long, and they will do the same in January.
When the Cowboys face up against the playoff teams with high-powered offenses, they'll play good enough. Rod Marinelli is a great defensive coordinator and he'll know what to do when the playoffs come. I don't think they can put the game on their backs, but with the offense working, they shouldn't have a problem.
With Ezekiel Elliot picking up first downs, and eating the time of possession, the well-rested Cowboys defense will be able to make the plays necessary to win games and get to Houston in February.