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Don't count out the Dallas Cowboys yet: Why they could make an NFL playoff run

Dallas Cowboys fans are in a panic. Losing a close game to the Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was one thing, but a 26-15 loss to the Bills at home on Thanksgiving ruined dinners across America. It's beginning to feel like a lost season for a Cowboys team that before the season expected to contend for a Super Bowl. You can tell things aren't going well when the in-game news is about how coach Jason Garrett won't be fired in-season.

There are reasons to be skeptical of this team and its ceiling. Garrett might not get fired during the season, but his long-term future with the organization looks increasingly cloudy. Key contributors such as Leighton Vander Esch and Amari Cooper are either banged up or outright injured. The Cowboys unquestionably have problems.

Is it time to write off Dallas and its chances of making the playoffs? No. As ugly as Thursday's loss was, there are reasons to think the Cowboys are still a viable playoff contender. By ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), in fact, the 6-6 Cowboys are still favorites to win the NFC East at 62%. I'm not quite as confident in the Cowboys as FPI, but those projections are a reminder that Dallas is still very much in the race.

Here's why the Cowboys aren't doomed (yet):


Their competition isn't doing well, either

As messy as the Cowboys look now, have you seen the Eagles? Philadelphia's offense has scored only 19 points over the past two games in losses to the Patriots and Seahawks, and one of those scores came with 23 seconds left down 17-3 last weekend. The Eagles have been ravaged by injuries on offense and were down to third-stringers along the offensive line during the loss to the Seahawks. And while the Giants and Washington are still somehow mathematically in the playoff race at 2-9, both teams should be eliminated as early as this weekend.

The Eagles are comfortable favorites at Miami on Sunday, which would take them to 6-6 and tied for first place with the Cowboys. Dallas has the tiebreaker after stomping the Eagles 37-10 in October, but the rematch between these two teams in Week 16 will take place in Philadelphia. Then again, home field hasn't meant much to the Eagles this season, given that Carson Wentz & Co. are 3-3 at the Linc in 2019.

Philadelphia's remaining schedule isn't scary, either. Even after the Dolphins game this weekend, the non-Cowboys schedule on tap for Doug Pederson's team includes a home-and-home with the Giants and a road trip to play a Washington team that routinely plays in front of a half-empty stadium. It's worth pointing out that the Eagles have lost to the 3-9 Falcons and 3-8-1 Lions this season, but outside of the Cowboys game, that's four matchups against some of the league's worst teams.

If there's good news for the Cowboys here, it's that ...

Dallas' remaining schedule isn't tough, either

Much has been made of the fact that the Cowboys haven't won a single game against a team with a winning record. Outside of their victory against the Eagles, who probably will be at or above .500 by the end of the season, Dallas' five wins have come over the Dolphins, Giants, Lions and Washington, who are a combined 9-35-1. The Jets would be in this group, but the Cowboys lost to Sam Darnold & Co. in Week 6.

The Cowboys might not actually need to win a single game against a team with a winning record to win the NFC East, because their schedule isn't tough. I would argue that it's harder than that of the Eagles, as FPI gives Philadelphia the league's easiest remaining schedule. Over the next two weeks, Dallas travels to face a 6-6 Bears team that nearly lost to the David Blough-led Lions on Thanksgiving, then hosts a 6-5 Rams team that is seemingly in free fall. There's no guarantee the Rams or Eagles are above .500 when they face the Cowboys in December, and then Dallas finishes up with a home game against Washington.

Dallas probably will be favored in three of those four games and slight underdogs at Philadelphia. That game in Week 16 will obviously have a huge impact on the division title, and while past performance isn't always indicative of what will happen in a rematch, the Cowboys blew out the Eagles the most recent time these two teams played. It's one of the reasons why ...

Advanced metrics think the Cowboys are better than public perception

Even after you account for the relatively easy opposition in those Cowboys victories, advanced metrics think the Cowboys are a very good team. Dallas ranked fifth in DVOA heading into Thanksgiving, and while it will drop after losing to the 14th-ranked Bills, the Cowboys probably will still sit in the top quarter of NFL teams heading into the final month of the season. FPI has them seventh.

The Cowboys have outscored their opponents by 74 points this season, and their Pythagorean expectation through 12 games is for 7.8 wins as opposed to their 6-6 mark. The gap between those two figures shouldn't be a surprise if you read my column on the teams most likely to decline in 2019, a list that included the Cowboys. Their 10-6 record last season was driven by an unsustainable 8-2 record in games decided by seven points or fewer.

We would typically expect the Cowboys to regress toward the mean and win about half of their close games. Instead, this season, the Cowboys are 0-4 in seven-point contests. While the Jets game was against inferior opposition, the other three losses came against some of the league's best. And in each of the contests, the Cowboys were in it until the final whistle:

  • In Week 4, the Cowboys led 10-9 over the Saints briefly at the start of the fourth quarter, but after a Wil Lutz field goal, three second-half Cowboys drives stalled without getting into field goal range.

  • In Week 6, the Cowboys launched a comeback against the Jets and scored on each of their final two drives, only to fail on the 2-point try and lose 24-22.

  • In Week 10, Dallas marched downfield at 28-24 and had a second-and-2 from the Vikings' 11-yard line with 1 minute, 33 seconds to go, only for two Ezekiel Elliott runs to lose 3 yards before an incomplete pass on fourth down.

  • Against the Patriots last Sunday, a Cowboys team trailing 14-9 was whistled for a phantom tripping call, turning a first down into a third-and-11. After Cooper narrowly couldn't bring in a pass on fourth down, Dallas lost.

This is virtually the same core of talent that won 80% of its close games last season. Going 0-4 in close games is more randomness than anything else.

Their special teams should get better

The Cowboys realistically lost the game against the Patriots because of their special-teams play. Brett Maher missed an early field goal attempt amid dismal weather conditions, and after one of the incorrect tripping calls was levied against Dallas, the Patriots blocked the ensuing punt by Chris Jones and gave their offense a short field. Tom Brady & Co. responded with their only touchdown of the day in a 13-9 win.

Against the Bills, too, the game might have gone differently if the Cowboys' specialists had done better. Maher saw a 35-yard field goal attempt blocked just before halftime and later missed a 47-yarder. The Bills weren't much better -- Stephen Hauschka missed a field goal attempt, an extra point attempt and saw another field goal bounce in off an upright -- but if Maher makes those two early field goals attempts, the Cowboys aren't in desperation mode and don't (necessarily) have to go for it on each of their two failed fourth-down tries in the fourth quarter.

Special teams have weighed down the Cowboys throughout the season. Dallas ranked last in special-teams DVOA heading into the Bills game, and its performance Thursday isn't going to get Keith O'Quinn's unit out of the basement. Ironically, Maher had been the most effective member of those special teams, given that the 30-year-old had been slightly above average on scoring plays before Thursday afternoon.

The relatively good news is that special teams is the most inconsistent element of football from week to week and season to season. The Cowboys ranked seventh in special-teams DVOA in 2017 and 23rd last season; they're not going to suddenly turn into a good special-teams unit, but they're probably not going to hit just 50% of their field goals attempts over the rest of the season either.

The offense probably will play better

The past two games haven't looked good for coordinator Kellen Moore's offense. After posting a QBR of 78.1 and playing like an MVP candidate through the first 11 weeks of the season, Dak Prescott has been able to muster only a middling QBR of 46.0 over the past two. Elliott has 33 carries for 157 yards, but those runs have yielded only eight first downs. A hobbled Cooper was shut down altogether by Stephon Gilmore and had to be hidden in the slot away from Tre'Davious White on Thursday. The Cowboys have scored 24 points on 21 meaningful possessions over the past two games.

I can give you an easy reason why the offense struggled over the past two games: The guys on the other side of the ball were pretty good too. Even given the gibes about their quality of competition, the Patriots lead the league in defensive DVOA, which is adjusted for schedule. The Bills rank ninth in overall defensive DVOA and were fifth against the pass, marks that will both rise after Thursday's victory. The Pats and Bills rank first and third, respectively, in scoring defense. Everyone's going to look worse against defenses this good.

The Cowboys have done an incredible job of staying on the field on offense. Through Week 11, they had converted just over 50% of their third- and fourth-down tries this season, which was the second-best rate in the league behind Baltimore. Against the Patriots in Week 12, the combination of terrible weather and a dominant defense led the Cowboys to go just 2-of-14 on third and fourth downs.

Dallas was back to form in converting on eight of its 16 tries against the Bills, but its offense petered out at the wrong times. As Warren Sharp mentioned, the Cowboys went scoreless on their next eight drives despite getting into field positions where teams generally come away with points. They made it into Buffalo territory on six of those drives, but they yielded a punt, a Prescott strip sack, two missed field goal attempts and two turnovers on downs.

It's uncommon for a team to make as many scoreless trips into the opposing team's territory in one game as the Cowboys did Thursday. Before Thanksgiving, there were only six instances in 2019 of a team ending six or more scoreless possessions on the opposition's side of the field. One of those examples was the Cowboys, who racked up six such drives against the Packers in Week 5, but they otherwise totaled 19 similar drives over their 10 other games. Thursday was a combination of bad kicking and great defense.

The Cowboys face only one pushover defense over the rest of the season, which is Washington in Week 17. No team is as good as the Patriots, but the Rams (sixth in DVOA), Eagles (seventh), and Bears (11th, excluding the Lions game) are all defenses that should show up and compete against Dallas.

At the same time, though, the Cowboys are among the league's best offenses. They were No. 1 in DVOA before the Patriots game, and even after two subpar outings, they're likely to sit either third or fourth when the new rankings come out, depending on how the Chiefs perform against the Raiders this weekend. Neither of the outliers that stalled them against the Patriots and Bills is likely to keep popping up over the rest of their schedule.

The team hasn't quit on Garrett

Although I'm sure you'll see some commenters float the idea over the next few days that the Cowboys have quit on Garrett, that storyline has always been difficult to swallow. Watch the fourth quarter of Sunday's game and you'll see Prescott attempting to run through tackles while scrambling and Cooper going over the middle of the field with most of his lower body injured. You might argue that Garrett should have kept Cooper out of the game, but those don't seem like the actions of players who have given up on the team.

It also would have been easy to make that same claim when the Cowboys lost by two touchdowns to the Titans on Monday Night Football last October and fell to 3-5. Much as he did after Thursday's loss, owner Jerry Jones insisted after the game that he had no intention of making an in-season coaching move. Dallas promptly got hot and went 7-1 the rest of the way.

I once tracked this same narrative with Tom Coughlin and the Giants. During Coughlin's first seven years as Giants coach, reporters suggested that the Giants had quit on their leader in no fewer than five different campaigns. In the eighth season, Coughlin had to deny that his team had quit on him after a 49-24 loss to the Saints in Week 12 dropped the Giants to 6-5.

Of course, the Giants ended up winning the Super Bowl that season. I don't think the same sort of run is in the cards for the Cowboys, but two frustrating games against good-to-great opposition aren't typically enough to derail an entire season. I'm not predicting that the Cowboys will win the East and make it to the playoffs, but they have a much better shot of doing so than the grumbles suggest.