The Cowboys' Biggest Threat May Not Even Make the Playoffs
When you take a quick glance at the NFC Playoff Picture heading into Week 17, it becomes pretty straightforward. The Dallas Cowboys are one step ahead of the competition, with Seattle and Atlanta fighting for an all-important first-round bye. The New York Giants have locked up the fifth seed. Many are wondering, which team has the best chance to bring the red-hot, eye-catching, much-hated but (at least should be) well-respected Dallas Cowboys?
The Atlanta Falcons have possibly the best offensive arsenal in the league, boasting the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection, the dynamic and vastly underrated running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and a play-toy named Taylor Gabriel who the worst team in the league could not even utilize to a quarter of the effect that Kyle Shanahan is. Their defense...is, well, okay. The emergences of Vic Beasley Jr. and rookie Keanu Neal have covered up the pourous run defense, the horribly inadequate linebacking core (Paul Worrilow started last year), and sub-par pass defense. But they have the offensive firepower to keep up with Dallas, right? Well, yeah, but we are talking about the Falcons. Their defense is atrocious, and they seem to choke just when their fans think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Likely to be a #2 seed, Dan Quinn probably will not have the opportunity to face Dallas until the NFC Championship. A threat, of course? But isn't everyone a threat when there are only four teams left standing? Let's put Matt Ryan and Co. aside for now.
Next are the acclaimed-to-be dynasty for years to come Seattle Seahawks. The defense still is astonishing. Pete Carroll and the front office have done a marvelous job finding gems in the late rounds when players like Rico Gathers, Moritz Boehringer, and Michael Sam are being drafted because of their name. But the Seahawks are at a crossing road. They paid Russell Wilson big-time money, and had to let Bobby Wagner walk. A trade for Jimmy Graham helped their passing attack, but Thomas Rawls and the five-gazillion rooks/no-namers would rather have the reliable Max Unger back. Michael Bennett is doing Michael Bennett things; who says he won't jump offsides at a crucial moment in the playoffs yet again? Earl Thomas is done for the year, and the defense is not as stout as the old Legion of Boom. Russell Wilson can make magic, but is it enough to hang with the Cowboys controlling, time of possession hogging, and randomly-explosive offense? Maybe for a half.
Similarly to the 'Hawks, the Green Bay Packers are not as good as the older versions. Quite frankly, when you are 4-6, have to win out, and almost complete a historic choke against the lowly Matt Barkley-led Chicago Bears, you aren't that good. Dallas dominated Green Bay in Lambeau, without Dez Bryant and his "catches". Maybe Aaron Rodgers and the offense want revenge, but is that really realistic when your secondary seems to sustain five new injuries a game? The offense cannot keep up, especially with Chrsitine Michael and Don Jackson the only running backs that don't seem to enjoy eating burgers or tweaking an ankle every opportunity that comes forth. John Kuhn anyone?
The aforementioned Packers will have to face the Detroit Lions in a possible do-or-die matchup on Sunday Night Football. You saw what happened on Monday night. Not much of an explanation is needed. Matt Stafford will probably still be dealing with finger issues come playoff time, and I doubt Darius Slay, no matter how aggressive and physical he is, can limit Dez Bryant. Add on to that the lack of sticking to the running game by the overrated Jim Bob Cooter, and the Lions are a one-dimensional team that isn't quite ready to contend with the best.
Next and last up: the New York Giants. Congrats, you beat the best team in the conference twice, but it doesn't really matter if you face them again. The Giants had the perfect formula to beat the Cowboys: disrupt Dak Prescott, play solid run defense, and find a way to not have Eli Manning throwing to the guys in silver and blue. I'm still skeptical of the G-Men up front protecting Manning and doing anything to get Rashad Jennings, Paul Perkins, and Shane Vereen past the line of scrimmage without getting met by half of the defense. But Ben McAdoo did not let the Tom Coughlin "Games are only 58 minutes long" motto carry over, as New York is 8-3 in games decided by seven points or less. The big X-Factor here: It is hard to beat a team three times in one year. If these two teams do face each other in this year's playoffs, the Cowboys will be ultra-motivated to exact revenge. Sorry Giants faithful, but beating the red-headed clapper a third time will not be an easy task.
So basically, I just mentioned the five teams that would be in the playoffs if the season was cut one week short. Who is Dallas' biggest threat then, you ask? Well, using the same saying, "It is hard to beat a team three times in one year", one team makes its entrance...
The Washington Redskins. The defending NFC East champions that haven't been on anyone's radar much at all lately. After an ugly and uninspiring loss on Monday night a few weeks back to the Carolina Panthers, the 'Skins received some luck in the form of a Tampa Bay two game losing streak (50% courtesy of the much-hated Dallas Cowboys) and a Detroit loss this past Monday night by the hands of Dallas. Thanks to their most-hated rival, the Redskins are in control of their own destiny, as long as Green Bay and Detroit don't decide to come together and tie so they can both make the playoffs! Wouldn't that be something. Gear up for 5 years of Tiegate trials! But the main point is, if Washington beats the Giants on Sunday, they are the #6 seed. A win in the wild card round would pit them against Dallas no matter the outcome of the 4/5 game. With an explosive offense that possesses seemingly endless options (D-Jax, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, etc.), the Redskins can keep pace as they showed in Week 2 and Thanksgiving Day. The emerging Robert Kelley and the health of Trent Williams will be key, along with Ryan Kerrigan and a talented but slim defense's showing.
As long as Kirk Cousins does not fall behind early, this could be an upset for the ages. Sure, there are still a lot of dominos that have to fall for this game to even take place. But the mantra that it is tough to beat a team three times in one season is a very true one, and could define this year's NFL Playoffs.
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