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Theory vs. reality for the Cowboys' play-off hopes

Tim's picture

It's that crazy time of year when the parity-driven NFL keeps mathematical hope alive for all kinds of teams that have no real shot at the playoffs – and no shot of making it past the first round if they happen to stumble in to what Bill Parcells used to call "the tournament."

Which brings us to the Dallas Cowboys. Sitting at 6-6 with four games left to play, Dallas trails the division-leading Giants by one game. With several NFC Wild Card contenders holding solid spots ahead of Dallas, winning the division appears to be the best road in. Mathematically, this is possible. If Dallas wins out, they will have a 10-6 record. The only help they would need is for the Giants to lose one of their next four games. In this scenario, Dallas would own the tiebreaker due to a better division record, and would have a better overall record than the Redskins, who would earn their 7th loss against Dallas if the Cowboys were to go 4-0 down the stretch.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? Fate (almost) entirely in their own hands?

Let's take the games one at a time:

Cowboys at Bengals.
A few weeks back, we were looking ahead at all the losers on the Dallas schedule. Since then, Cincinnati has moved to 7-5, while Dallas has just managed to crawl back to .500. Next Sunday, the slow-starting Dallas offense faces the league's #1 pass rush. Nothing to worry about there, huh? The offensive line can keep Romo on his feet against a team that averages 3.1 sacks per game, right? And Andy Dalton is only a second year quarterback. So this Dallas defense, which is 1-2 against rookie quarterbacks this season should have no trouble containing the "Red Rifle." By the way, Pro Football Focus ranks all the league's cornerbacks based on film study. Some highlights: #15 Pacman Jones, #29 Terence Newman, #63 Morris Claiborne, #100 Brandon Carr. Just food for thought.

Steelers at Cowboys.
I know the Steelers are getting older, their defense is not what it used to be, and Roethlisberger will be a little gimpy even is he is back. But their defense is still ranked #1 in the NFL in yards allowed, and #6 in scoring.

Saints at Cowboys.
Can you honestly say that the Cowboys secondary and pass rush match up well against the league's #3 passing and #5 scoring offense? Opposing quarterbacks have a 95.0 rating against Dallas this year. Drew Brees may lead the league in Interceptions, but he also leads in Touchdown passes. The Dallas defense ranks dead last in Interceptions and only 22d in the NFL in sacks.

Cowboys at Redskins.
Well, we've seen this movie before. The question is how much will have changed for both teams by the time this game rolls around. I read a Peter King column following the Monday Night Football game between the Giants and Redskins. King went on and on about how difficult it is to defend against the Washington "Pistol offense." He explained that it's just so unpredictable – practically unstoppable. The only problem with this analysis? The Giants did stop it. Washington, playing at home, scored only 17 points. That game was a defensive battle, and the Redskins defense managed to hold a one point fourth quarter lead against the defending Super Bowl champs. But can the Cowboys stop Washington? They certainly didn't on Thanksgiving.

I hope this doesn't sound too pessimistic. Obviously, I'm rooting for 4-0 down the stretch, but the schedule and the injury reports are what they are. As they say, though: "that's why they play the games."