While they won six of their final eight games, their last two performances — including their worst performance of the year against Washington — have fans and those who cover the team worried for what lies ahead.
What lies ahead? A road trip to Tampa Bay to face Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. While the Bucs themselves limped into the tournament by winning the lowly NFC South with an under .500 record, Playoff Brady is a different animal and he’s a ridiculous 7-0 against the Cowboys in his career.
While Dallas focuses on turning the page to Tampa Bay, fans and journalists have the luxury of looking ahead and scoping out the NFC playoff picture, which was finalized Sunday night after the Lions (who had nothing to play for) defeated the Packers in Lambeau to send Green Bay packing and the Seahawks to the dance.
Here’s a look at the final NFC playoff picture.
What’s the Cowboys easiest path to the NFC Championship Game?
We’d all agree that anything less than an appearance in the NFC Championship Game would make the season a failure, right?
Not that winning in January is easy, but luckily for you we mapped out the Cowboys’ de facto easiest path to the NFC Title Game.
Unfortunately, the Packers making the playoffs would’ve been in Dallas’ best interest, assuming they’d have a better chance to win in San Francisco than Seattle. Either way, the 49ers choking at home to their division rivals on Wild Card Weekend is what every Cowboys fan should be rooting for.
In that scenario, the Seahawks would travel to Philadelphia in the Divisional Round, setting up a potential Cowboys vs Vikings or Cowboys vs Giants matchup that weekend, assuming Dallas handles their business in Tampa Bay.
You couldn’t ask for a better turn of events than Dallas playing Minnesota or New York in the second round. The Cowboys dismantled the Vikings 40-3 on the road earlier this season, and completed a season sweep of the Giants for the second year in a row, including in Week 3 with Cooper Rush running the offense.
Again, it’s unlikely. The 49ers opened as 10-point favorites against the Seahawks. They won both meetings against the fighting Pete Carroll’s this season by a combined 28 points. It’s not an ideal matchup for Geno Smith on Seattle’s offense, but beating the same team thrice in one year is a rarity in the NFL, and San Francisco’s magic (they won their final 10 games) has to run out at some point, right?
Either way, Cowboys fans should be rooting for a Seahawks win this weekend as far as scoreboard watching goes. A Seattle win would mean nothing if Dallas loses to Tampa Bay, but this whole article is based on hypotheticals.
But what is fandom if not envisioning — some would say manifesting — the best possible outcome for your favorite team?
Cowboys initial injury report for Buccaneers clash is best news possible
The Cowboys will undoubtedly be sent packing against the Buccaneers if they perform like that again, but it’s fair to assume that wasn’t the real Cowboys. Whether you agree with them going through the motions in their final playoff tune-up, that game was a clear outlier relative to how they’ve played all year.
Getting through the game healthy was the most important thing, after all. With several key players banged up, Dallas could ill-afford another important contributor going down right before the playoffs.
Could you imagine a Micah Parsons, Tony Pollard or Jayron Kearse aggravating their current knocks before the Bucs? No, thank you.
At full-strength, Dallas should handle their business against Tampa Bay. While no team is fully healthy in January, Mike McCarthy’s side is expected to get some major reinforcements for Monday night, per ESPN’s Todd Archer.
Anyone else giddy to see Leighton Vander Esch, Johnathan Hankins, and Tyler Biadasz back at practice? Even better is the fact DaRon Bland should be on the field this week after he left Week 18 with a chest injury and didn’t return.
Cowboys Injury Report: Positive updates on Leighton Vander Esch, Johnathan Hankins, Tyler Biadasz and DaRon Bland
This is fantastic news. Mike McCarthy added he’s “very optimistic” about the playing availability of Vander Esch, Hankins and Biadasz. Vander Esch (shoulder) missed the final three games, while Hankins (pec) missed the final four contests, and Biadasz missed Week 18 with an ankle sprain suffered against the Titans.
McCarty added that the trio “looked very positive today (Monday), so we’ll see where they are on Wednesday, but their arrow is pointing up.”
With Cowboys-Buccaneers getting the Monday night slot, the only non-Saturday/Sunday fixture of Wild Card Weekend, they’ll get an extra day of rest — two when taking into account the Saturday games — to get these players ready.
That’s a pretty huge deal. The Cowboys’ defense has sorely missed Vander Esch and Hankins’ impact against the run. Vander Esch brings extra value with his ability to play sideline-to-sideline and snuff out short passes, while Dallas has allowed nearly an extra yard per carry in Hankins’ extended absence.
On Wednesday, the Cowboys formally opened Hankins’ 21-day practice window. The expectation is he’ll be in uniform Monday night.
Biadasz’s potential return, meanwhile, would bring needed stability to an offensive line that got bullied against Washington’s front seven.
While Jason Peters and Tyron Smith held their own in pass pro, both veteran tackles were exposed in the run game. Biadasz’s return could set everything back into place, though the rushing attack admittedly hasn’t been the same since Terence Steele’s season-ending injury.
Is it crazy to say Bland’s status for Monday night is the most important of these players, though? That’s no dig at Vander Esch, Hankins, or Biadasz, but the thought of Dallas being without Bland, who’s developed into a key player in the secondary as a rookie, to contend with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin is horrifying.
Still a long way to go before Monday night, but Cowboys fans couldn’t have asked for a better injury report to start the week.