Contending Cowboys: What a win Sunday means for the NFC playoff picture

Edward, Jacob, and Bella; Peeta, Gale, and Katniss; Barney, Ted and Robin all need to make way for America’s hottest new love triangle: Dak, Romo, and Jerry.

On one hand you have that first love. The one who has been with you through years, both thick and thin. The one you’d have no problem spending the rest of your life with, but understand that his deteriorating health will make that impossible.

It would be easy to just patch things up and try to make it work with your old flame, but during your break, you met someone else. Someone who has shown you love like you’ve never known. You don’t know how long it’s going to last, but that doesn’t matter. Right now, it just works.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned this week, it’s that what the media thinks is the big story often isn’t. This holds true in Dallas. Turn on a TV, open a newspaper, or tune into a radio, and all you will hear is talk about the Romo, Dak, and Jerry love triangle. Who should be the starter? While this might be an interesting story, that garners ratings, it is not THE story. The story in Dallas is that two rookies are leading the leagues best offense toward Super Bowl contention, coming of a 4-12 season. 4-12!

With their intermediate passing game and heavy focus on running the ball, the Cowboys may not look like an offensive juggernaut on film, but they very much are. They rank 7th in the NFL in yards per play. According to sportingcharts.com, they also have a ‘big play percentage’ (running plays of 10 yards or more, and passing plays of 25 yards are more) of 9.83%, that’s 3rd in the league. For being so often accused of having a week deep ball, only Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady average more yards per passing attempt than Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys’ defense has been an even bigger surprise than the offense. Rob Marinelli’s unit may be lacking complex schemes and pro bowlers, but it gets the job done. They play a very basic cover 2 man defense on most downs, and have given up the 4th fewest big plays in the league. This provides the perfect complement for an offense that can use its borderline mythical line to control the ball and go on long scoring drives.

But for all that has gone well, Dallas still has a lot to prove. Last week’s 35-10 thumping of football’s Jerry Gergich, the Cleveland Browns, marked the Cowboys’ seventh consecutive win, and extended their lead in the NFC standings to one and a half games. However, before Jerry Jones pops the bubbly, breaks a twenty and heads to Baby Dolls to celebrate his team’s surprising success, he better understand the importance of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

During the Cowboys seven game win streak, their opponents have a combined record of 17-38-1. Winning in the NFL is always tough, but when you haven’t played Denver, New England, Seattle, Atlanta, Kansas City, or Oakland—teams that are widely considered the other Super Bowl contenders—it’s that much easier.

Pittsburgh isn’t exactly an embodiment of the consistency that has eluded the Cowboy’s schedule, thus far (they’ve lost three in a row). However, they will present some challenges for Dallas. For one, the Steelers are a different team at home. They boast a 3-1 record in the familiar confines of Heinz Field. They tend to do most of their under preforming away form home.

Another thing, is that Ben Roethlisberger will be playing on Sunday. And though he was not himself last in last week’s loss to Baltimore, he should be expected to improve each week removed from the knee injury that sidelined him for two weeks.

If Roethlisberger’s health is improved he’ll be able to get the ball to superstar receiver Antonio Brown, someone the Cowboy’s thin secondary will have to use multiple men to cover.

Another thing to keep in mind is the phenomenon that the Steelers defense feeds off of the team’s offensive output. In games where they’ve scored 24 or more points (their four wins), the defense has given up just under 15 points a game. In games they’ve scored less than 24 (their four losses), the defense has allowed 28 points a game. Weirdly, If Le’veon Bell, Brown, and Roethlisberger can get the offense back on track, it could be bad news for Dak and Ezekiel Elliott.

If, on Sunday, the Cowboys make a statement and get the win, they’ll improve to 8-1 and be placed near the top of nearly everyone’s Super Bowl contenders list . The news could get even better from there. This week, Seattle and Atlanta have tough road games against New England and Philadelphia, respectively. Which means that Jerry Jones and co. could wake up on Monday morning two and a half games clear of any NFC competition.

A win over Pittsburgh would do a lot for Prescott, too. For the first time this season, Romo is healthy enough to play, and is a legitimate option for Jason Garrett. If Dak can handle the wild crowd and complicated blitz packages, he can further distance himself from shadow of Tony Romo. Something that may be necessary for the rookie to being his first run at a Super Bowl

 

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