At the beginning of the NFL season, it is hard to predict how formidable, or not, teams will be late in the year. We always get surprised one way or another by some. Still, when the 2022 schedule came out, the upcoming three game stretch against the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars looked like one of the easier parts for the Dallas Cowboys. Now, with twelve weeks in the books, that is still the case. While Dallas is 8-3 and very much a part of the playoff picture, those next three teams are a combined 9-23-1, and none have much hope of getting into the postseason.
That hardly means the those games are in the bag for the Cowboys. This is more an opportunity for them to build some momentum and increase their confidence before the big game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Christmas Eve. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle discuss what they think it all means.
Tom: You look at these AFC South opponents coming up, and it is not unreasonable to say that the Cowboys would almost have to beat themselves. I still get leery of overconfidence after the loss to the Green Bay Packers, but there is no Aaron Rodgers lurking in this group to come in and save a game. I fully expect Dallas to get to 11-3 before they face the Eagles and then the only good team in the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans. Those are both games that are not easy matchups, and the Cowboys need to stack up these next three wins for a little insurance as the playoff picture begins to sort itself.
I do think this is one case where not all wins are equal. There is a consensus that Dallas is one of the elite teams in the NFC, along with the Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. It is a plus that the Cowboys have already handed the Vikings one of the worst beatdowns of the season, but this is a week-to-week league. Dallas needs to live up to expectations over these next three contests to prove that they are indeed one of the teams that deserve to be in the conversation of who goes to the Super Bowl out of the NFC.
David: Beating the Colts or Texans may not mean as much as beating the Vikings or – knocks on wood – the Eagles, but it certainly counts the same when talking about win-loss records. And, of course, that’s all that matters when it comes down to division winners or that elusive one seed come playoff time. Since 2002, the last time the NFL realigned its divisions, the Cowboys have won at least 11 games five times, and each of those years they ended up winning the NFC East.
That’ll be a bit harder to do this year, given the Eagles’ hot start, but it’s not impossible. The Cowboys are the only team in their division that has yet to play any AFC South team this year, and they figure to be favored in at least three of those games. To get to that 11-win mark heading into the Eagles game on Christmas Eve would do wonders for their odds, especially if Philadelphia drops a game before then.
It’s important to take care of these next three games, though, because a loss in any of them would likely do irreparable damage to the Cowboys’ division hopes.
Tom: It is interesting you mentioned the past record, because there is another tidbit I’d like to mention. If Dallas does not somehow mess this up, they will be going to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-2007. The next three contests, like the season as a whole, are about consistency, something that has clearly been lacking for a long time. Just looking at now, that consistency could be a very good thing to maintain. Our Dan Rogers conveniently laid out how the team is doing in some key statistical categories.
The Dallas Cowboys are Top 10 in:
Points scored (7th)
Points allowed (2nd)
Sacks allowed (1st)
Red Zone % (4th)
Red Zone % allowed (10th)
3rd D % (8th)
3rd D % allowed (5th)
Opponent pass yards/game (1st)
So yeah, they’re pretty good.
— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 1, 2022
That does not reflect the way the team has jumped in things like scoring and third-down conversions since Dak Prescott returned from injury. It is most important to keep winning to not only stay in the race for the NFC East crown, at least for now, but to insure the best possible matchup if they do have to go into the playoffs as a wildcard. And for once, I think style points matter. These are not games where a win is a win is a win. It is an opportunity to establish a real killer identity for the Cowboys, and they need to do so.
David: Just to build on your point about consistency, if the Cowboys do make the playoffs this year then Mike McCarthy will be the first Cowboys head coach this century to make the postseason in consecutive years. The last coach to do that was Chan Gailey, who was fired in 1999 after two playoff appearances in two years. That’s noteworthy because I think McCarthy has instilled a sense of consistency and, hopefully, a very necessary killer instinct in this group.
McCarthy has also talked often about the importance of December football and the need for teams to get on a run this time of year. He’s backed his words up with actions too, holding a career record of 42-18 in the month of December and, more specifically, going 7-1 in December since coming to Dallas. Sure, all seven of those wins came over teams with losing records, but that speaks to how McCarthy got his team to play their best and win the games they were supposed to win this late in the year. And as we turn the calendar to December and see three consecutive teams with losing records, that should bode well for them.
What I’m looking forward to more is the Eagles’ next three games. It starts at home with Derrick Henry and the Titans, who should be able to take advantage of Philadelphia’s vulnerable run defense. Then it’s two road games against the frisky Giants and a Bears team that might be getting explosive quarterback Justin Fields back before then. Comparatively, their schedule is tougher than the Cowboys’ prior to that Christmas Eve rematch, and we’ll just have to hope Christmas comes early in Dallas.
Tom: I absolutely hate to have to depend on another team to help the Cowboys. But I will take it in a heartbeat, which is why I will be a lifelong fan of the Titans when they play the Eagles, and then find an amazing amount of love for the Giants the next week. But clearly Dallas can only control the games they play, and I want them to be firmly in charge for the next three. Well, all six of the ones remaining, to be honest.
That is why this segment of the schedule is more important than it might seem given the anticipated level of competition. The Cowboys need to put that bully stamp on things and set themselves up for the postseason. Just don’t lose focus. Any NFL team can be dangerous on any given Sunday. I just came up with that, by the way.