Happy #VictoryPoloMonday, Inside The Star Family!
This feels weird because the Dallas Cowboys didn't play a game on the Sunday of Week 13, but they were nevertheless victorious. In case you haven't heard - the Dallas Cowboys clinched a playoff berth on Sunday!
It's a ridiculously awesome life when the calendar reads December 5th, but your ticket to the dance has already been purchased. What about our suit, though? We need to go get measured. We also need to look into getting that limo to get us to this dance... we need to discuss all the other potential perks that come with being a playoff team!
When November began I wrote here at Inside The Star that the Dallas Cowboys would be in an NFC East win-and-clinch situation entering the New York Giants game on December 11th. Here we are, a playoff berth in hand, and we want more.
Last week we detailed all the playoff-clinching scenarios for you, and that's why we're here today... It's time for an update! The most relevant non-Cowboys team as far as the NFC East goes is the New York Giants, and the most-watched teams across the conference for our sakes are the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
The Cowboys have opportunities to clinch both a First-Round Bye AND Home-Field Advantage this season, it's a wonderful world. Sit back, grab a cup of coffee (I like mine with two sugars and one cream, please), and start planning.
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How The Cowboys Can Clinch The NFC East
This is pretty simple at this point, but it's fun to talk about how dominating we are so we'll do it briefly. The Cowboys have a 3-win lead on the next closest division rival, the New York Giants. In order to win the NFC East the Cowboys need:
- A Win In New York On Sunday: A win on Sunday would give the Cowboys 12 victories and hold the Giants at 8. There are only three left afterwards. Yay math.
- IF The Giants Win On Sunday: The Cowboys have more room for error concerning Sunday's game in New York thanks to the Steelers beating the Giants this past Sunday. If the G-Men managed to sweep Dallas, the Cowboys could still clinch the NFC East fairly easily. They'd simply need to win one game, any game, and have the Giants lose one.
At this point the Giants need a miracle to win the NFC East. The only way they could is if the Cowboys only win one game from here on out, that game not being the one in New York, and the Giants would have to win out. Buh-bye.
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How The Cowboys Can Clinch A First-Round Bye
It's Christmas time so I hear those sleigh bells jingling and ring-ting-ting-a-ling, but I want to enjoy Christmas with the peace of mind that my Cowboys are going to get a week of rest at the culmination of the regular season. Here are the ways the Cowboys can secure a First-Round Bye:
- Win In New York On Sunday + Detroit OR Seattle Loss (Any Loss): It goes without saying that the Cowboys have to win the division in order to get a bye, but in case you didn't know there you are. A NYG win would net the division and take care of that, and a loss by Detroit or Seattle would mean that whoever lost stayed at 8 wins while the Cowboys coasted to 12 with only three to go. If the Detroit or Seattle loss we need came a week later, that'd be fine. It would mean that whoever did lose that game (Detroit or Seattle) would not mathematically be able to hit 12 wins, and since the Cowboys would already have 12 all would be taken care of.
- Win The Next Two Games AKA The Magic 13: The Cowboys are sitting on 11 wins as we speak, two more would give them The Magic 13. This number is magical because no other team in the NFC can achieve it. Should the Cowboys win their next two games they'll have secured the NFC East and a mark that is literally impossible for anyone else to reach.
Technically speaking the Cowboys could still miss out on a First-Round Bye if they lost out and both Seattle and Detroit won out. Obviously this is very unlikely for a squad that's won 11 games in a row, so it seems like those two teams will have to fight each other for the other bye.
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How The Cowboys Can Clinch Home-Field Advantage
Last week someone told me that we were getting ahead of ourselves talking about something like Home-Field Advantage so early.
When you have a playoff spot locked and loaded on December 5th, you can look wherever you want. The Cowboys have earned the right to look past some teams because we're amazing and they're not (those are the spark notes, sorry). Seriously though, it is not just possible but likely that the road to Super Bowl LI in Houston will also run in the state of Texas. Here's how the Cowboys can lock up Home-Field Advantage:
- Win In New York On Sunday + Detroit AND Seattle Loss (Any Loss): This logic is easy to understand. A NYG win gives us the NFC East and 12 on the season, and losses by both the Lions and Seahawks keeps them at 8 with three to go. We'd be the top dog. Say the Lions (host Chicago) and Seahawks (visit Packers) both win on Sunday... no biggie. Both of those teams would have to win out in order to reach 12, if they both stumble even just once apiece then it's over.
- Win In New York On Sunday + 1 More Win AKA The Magic 13: By now you've read me say a win in New York gives us the division, yay, but one more win might be necessary. Say the Lions and Seahawks actually did each win out (that would mean the Lions beat the Cowboys on Monday Night Football in Week 16, by the way). Then Dallas would have to beat either the Buccaneers (this game has been flexed to Sunday Night Football, by the way) or Eagles to give them 13 wins - no one else can reach 13.
It's pretty unlikely, but it is possible that when the Cowboys kick off in New York that they will be playing for: The NFC East, a First-Round Bye, and Home-Field Advantage. This is the scenario that sees Detroit and Seattle both losing in Week 14, but again it is unlikely. Either way the Cowboys are in a position where they have some serious control.
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What To Root For In Week 14 For The Cowboys Sake
By now you're a pro when it comes to what the Cowboys need to clinch this, that, and the other... but what about something else? There's always something else!
If you're looking really far down the road then you're already trying to organize who you want the Cowboys to be in the playoffs with. I've said many a time on OchoLive that I'm afraid of the Redskins (even though they lost to the Cardinals), but who are you afraid of? The current NFC Playoff Landscape has Dallas, Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta as the division winners plus the Giants and Bucs as the wildcard teams. I like that mix of teams.
The Packers and Vikings technically still have life, but I've already mentally disregarded them. The only team that's on the outside-looking-in that is still relevant to me is in fact Washington. This can get spicy in the NFC South if Atlanta decides to drop a few and we could see Tampa Bay actually win it, Washington take the Wild Card back, and Atlanta drop out altogether. That trifecta is going to be fun to watch, but if you like the way things are right now here's what you need to root for in Week 14:
Cowboys Week 14 Guide: ▪️ Dallas beat NYG ⬜️ ▪️ Chicago beat DET ⬜️ ▪️ Green Bay beat SEA ⬜️ ▪️ Philly beat WASH ⬜️ ▪️ Tampa Bay beat NO ⬜️
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It was just over a month ago that we all got together here at Inside The Star and agreed that the Dallas Cowboys would be in division-clinching position on Sunday, December 11th.
Let's keep this party going. Huzzah.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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