Cowboys, Bills among dark-horse title contenders; Texans' trio

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- The receiving corps that no one wants to face in the playoffs.

-- Boasting a whopping 12 Pro Bowlers, one organization is the envy of the league.

But first, a look at three teams that shouldn't be taken lightly as title contenders ...

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It's not how you start. It's how you finish.

The age-old maxim might be something adults use to inspire kids to persevere through tough times, but football coaches have also long leaned on the adage to encourage their teams to play their best football at the end of the season.

As a player with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the mid-1990s, we bounced back from a 3-6 start in 1996 to finish the regular season with a 9-7 mark and ended up as an unlikely qualifier for the playoffs. As winners of six of our last seven games, we found our identity down the stretch and the confidence from that discovery enabled us to beat the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card game before we knocked off the No. 1-seed Denver Broncos on the way to an appearance in the AFC Championship Game vs. the Patriots.

Although we fell short of reaching Super Bowl XXXI, the lessons learned from that journey have led me to keep an eye on lower seeds with Super Bowl potential when tracking teams heading into the playoffs. With that in mind, here are three dark-horse title contenders to watch down the stretch:

Dallas Cowboys

First things first. The 7-7 Cowboys, who have dropped four of their last six games, have yet to clinch a playoff berth heading into Sunday's huge game against the Eagles (Cowboys clinch the NFC East with a win over Philly). So, I know the mere sight of Dallas on this list will bring a few snickers based on the team's up and down season, which includes only one win against a team with a winning record. However, Jerry Jones' squad should be feared as a contender due to its star-studded roster and old-school formula to win games. The Cowboys have elite personnel at each of the marquee positions on both sides of the ball (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle, pass rusher, linebacker, and cornerback) and their overall talent gives them a chance to win against any team in the NFC.

If the Cowboys rely on Ezekiel Elliott (and RB2 Tony Pollard) to spearhead a dominant running game that enables them to control the tempo and set up a vertical play-action passing game with Amari Cooper playing the lead role, Jason Garrett will force opponents to play against a dynamic, ball-control offense that could elect to operate at a snail's pace. This has been the Cowboys' blueprint during their most recent NFC East title runs (2014, 2016 and 2018) and their Week 15 win over the Rams suggested the team is returning to the old-school approach with the playoffs on the horizon.

Looking at the numbers, the Cowboys would be wise to lean on the running game with Elliott posting six 100-yard games on his 2019 resume thanks, in part, to an offensive line that's still capable of moving bodies at the point of attack. Dallas is 22-5 (including the playoffs) when Elliott rushes for 100 yards or more. Plus, Pollard's career day in Week 15 (131 yards on 12 carries) showcased his ability as an explosive change-of-pace back, which only enhances the running game and sets the table for Prescott's vertical strikes off run-action fakes.

As a downfield passer, Prescott is enjoying a solid season with a 59.3 percent completion rate (third-highest in the NFL) and 119.6 passer rating (fifth) on passes of 10-plus air yards this season, per Next Gen Stats. No. 4 is averaging 13.1 yards per attempt (third) and has 15 passing touchdowns (sixth) on such throws. With the running game setting up a complementary passing game that frequently features deep comebacks, post corners, and crossing routes, Prescott has also excelled making throws outside of the numbers (65.6 percent completion rate, 8.5 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and a 105.6 passer rating; ranks in the top seven in each category) while developing a strong connection with Cooper on boundary throws. No. 19 has the third-most receptions (41) and second-most yards (628) with five touchdowns on tosses outside the numbers.

The Cowboys' methodical offensive approach not only puts the ball in the hands of their best playmakers but it also enables the defense to play to the strength of its personnel. DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett and Robert Quinn lead a defensive line loaded with quality pass rushers on the edges. Despite ranking 14th in sacks (36), the Cowboys are among the top 10 defenses in QB hurries (58, ninth-most) and QB knockdowns (43, tied for ninth-most), according to Pro Football Reference.

Those numbers matter because they speak to the effectiveness of a pass rush that rarely leans on blitzes (23.2 percent) to create pressure or turnovers. In essence, the Cowboys want to play keep away on offense to force opponents into a one-dimensional game plan (passing only) that allows their pass rushers to hunt while playing max coverage behind it. When they're able to dictate the terms, this combination keeps them in games and makes them a tough out in the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings

Don't let the narrative about Kirk Cousins' past struggles in prime-time games lead to a dismissal of the Vikings' playoff chances. Mike Zimmer's team has the potential to throw a monkey wrench into their opponents' plans due to a rock-solid offense with playmakers all over the perimeter and a defense that's rounding into form as one of the league's top units.

Offensively, the Vikings are one of the few teams capable of playing smashmouth football without diffusing their explosiveness in the passing game. But before I get too deep into my Minnesota analysis, we must discuss Dalvin Cook. He undoubtedly is the focal point of the offense, as evidenced by the fact that he accounts for 30.7 percent of the Vikings' scrimmage yards (fourth-highest in the NFL). He ranks in the top 10 in rush yards per game (81.1, seventh-most) and rushing touchdowns (13, tied for third-most) while displayed exceptional stop-start quickness on perimeter runs. That's why it's so important that he's healthy for the postseason (the Vikings have a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs, per The New York Times' Upshot tool). A shoulder injury has tempered his explosiveness over the past few weeks, and reportedly might keep him out of the team's final two regular-season games. He is fundamental to the team's hopes of making a run at a title. Cook had eight games with 100-plus scrimmage yards in the Vikings' first 10 contests, which provides a glimpse of his effectiveness as the offense's No. 1 playmaker.

Cousins is at his best featured in a complementary role to Cook and the running game. The veteran passer has quietly posted top-five numbers in completion percentage (70.5%) and passer rating (111.1). He's one of only five passers with 20-plus pass touchdowns and five or fewer interceptions (25:5 TD:INT ratio). Cousins has not only been effective playing dink-and-dunk football from the pocket but he has excelled throwing deep. He has the league's highest passer rating (131.0) on deep-ball passes while also ranking second in yards per attempt (17.5) and fourth in completion percentage (44.7%), per Next Gen Stats.

What do those numbers tell us?

Well, for one thing, Cousins has the potential to torch any opponent with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen working over defensive backs on the perimeter while opposing front sevens focus on slowing down Cook. The intense attention on the team's star running back leaves Diggs and Thielen facing one-on-one coverage, which is a win for the Vikings and Cousins. Diggs, in particular, has feasted on defensive backs, posting 1,000-plus receiving yards for the second consecutive season. Remarkably, No. 19 is the only player this season who has topped the 1,000-yard mark with fewer than 100 targets (89), which is a testament to the efficiency of the Vikings' passing game.

With Thielen working his way back into the lineup last week after missing four straight games due to a hamstring injury, the Vikings' aerial attack is problematic for defensive coordinators tasked with slowing down an offense with the potential to light up the scoreboard or drain the clock with a balanced approach.

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings are an underrated unit with a combination of personnel and scheme that's taxing on opposing quarterbacks and play-callers. The Vikings have 13 games with at least one takeaway (tied for most in the NFL) and they've held their last two opponents to 10 or fewer points. In addition, Vikings rank sixth in scoring defense (18.5 points per game), and they've been able to harass opponents with a fierce pass rush.

Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are a destructive combination off the edge. They have combined for 21.5 sacks -- tied for the second-most by a teammate duo in 2019. With contrasting styles of speed and power, and the creative scheming from Zimmer, the Vikings consistently create disruption with their pass rush and make life uncomfortable for quarterbacks attempting to win from the pocket.

Although the Vikings are more vulnerable than anticipated at cornerback, the combination of speed, athleticism, and explosiveness of their 11 defenders will make it tough on opponents forced to chase points against Zimmer's troops.

Buffalo Bills

We haven't talked about the Bills being a legitimate contender since their remarkable Super Bowl runs of the 1990s but it's time to include this team in the discussion due to its stellar defense and a playmaking quarterback bolstered by clever tactics employed by an A-plus coaching staff. After all, they're the only team on this list that has already locked up a playoff berth.

Now, I know it's not in vogue to win with a defensive-led approach in today's game, but the Bills' defense is nothing short of spectacular despite its lack of an established star. Buffalo ranks second in scoring defense (15.9 points per game) and third in yards allowed (291.9 per game) with a young, athletic group of defenders flying to the ball with reckless abandon. The Bills have effectively mixed in some blitzing (31.5%) to complement their traditional zone and man coverage schemes.

With the Bills' straightforward defensive approach in mind, opponents are challenged to win their matchups against an emerging superstar on the island (Tre'Davious White) and a monster in the middle (Tremaine Edmunds). When you combine Jordan Phillips' breakout season as an interior sack artist (9.5 sacks) with the timely contributions of Shaq Lawson (6.5), Ed Oliver (5) and Jerry Hughes (4.5) as complementary pass rushers, the Bills are the blue-collar defense that can feast on aggressive opponents who get careless with the football.

Offensively, the Bills' QB1 gives them a chance to make a run due to his dynamic game. Josh Allen is far from a polished player, but he is a dual-threat playmaker with the potential to post a 200/100 game (200 passing yards/100 rushing yards) with multiple touchdowns on the ground. No. 17 is on pace to join Cam Newton (2011 and 2015) and Kordell Stewart (1997) as the only players in NFL history to tally 20-plus touchdown passes and 10-plus rushing scores in a single season.

Although the Bills are averaging only 20.8 points per game (22nd in the NFL), the potential for Allen to explode for a big play on the ground or through the air gives them a chance to surpass that total (as they have done five times this season) on the strength of their QB1's playmaking ability.

That said, the Bills' chances to make a deep run really hinge on the coaching staff's ability to play the game on their terms. Whether it's through scheming up the defensive tactics to eliminate the deep balls and force opponents to drive the length of the field on an assortment of nickel and dime plays or exploiting vulnerabilities in the kicking game, the Buffalo coaching staff will challenge opponents to play mistake-free football to win games.

In a win-or-go-home scenario, the Bills' understanding of how to limit turnovers and penalties, eliminate big plays and win the time of possession battle gives them an opportunity to knock off a higher seed that has more star power.

TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL

1) The Texans trio that keeps opposing coaches up at night. If I'm a defensive coordinator prepping for the playoffs, the unit I want to avoid facing in single-elimination season is the Houston Texans' wide receiver corps. I know this might come as a surprise to the supporters of the Chiefs, Vikings and Saints, among others, but the most feared pass-catching group in football resides in H-Town.

The Texans' aerial attack has been a thorn in defensive coordinators' sides since DeAndre Hopkins emerged as arguably the No. 1 receiver in football. But the additional presence of Kenny Stills and Will Fuller as explosive complements makes the unit nearly impossible to contain, with Deshaun Watson willing to throw the ball to each playmaker on the perimeter. The passing distribution makes it challenging for opponents to neutralize one pass catcher without leaving an area of the defense exposed to another difference-maker with game-changing potential.

For instance, Tennessee spent the initial three quarters of its Week 15 loss to Houston focused on slowing down Hopkins, but this allowed Stills to torch the Texans' slot defenders for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions. The veteran is not only one of the best route runners in football, but he is a dominant force as an inside receiver due to his combination of quickness and ball skills. Stills routinely whoops defenders with his clean routes, and his ability to separate makes him an easy target on third down when opponents overload the defense to Hopkins' side.

Fuller is Houston's designated vertical threat, as a straight-line playmaker with exceptional speed and acceleration. In 10 games this season, he has four catches of 40-plus yards and 10 of 20-plus. Fuller's ability to run away from defenders on deep crossers and post routes enables Watson to take advantage of defensive coordinators' attempts to shrink the field with tight zones.

"He adds a dimension to the offense that helps in both phases," O'Brien said of Fuller a few weeks ago, via "I mean, obviously in the passing game, it's obvious how he helps us. He's a good route runner, he's got great speed, but then that can help in the running game, depending on how they play the side that he's aligned on. It can help you run the ball over to that side a little bit better. Yeah, there's a lot of things that having him in the lineup does to help the offense."

With Fuller stretching the field and Stills wearing opponents out in the slot (and out wide), Hopkins has been able to continue racking up big numbers as the Texans' WR1. The perennial Pro Bowler has already topped the 1,100-yard mark for the third straight season, and he's logged at least five receptions in all 14 games this year. Only four players have finished a full 16-game season with at least five catches in every game: Antonio Brown (who's accomplished the feat twice), Jarvis Landry, Pierre Garcon and Jimmy Smith. So, yeah, Hopkins clearly remains Houston's top option in the passing game, and he continues to get the ball regardless of coverage or defensive tactics. He is second in the NFL in receptions (with 99; Michael Thomas has a whopping 133) and accounts for the second-highest percentage of a team's receptions (31.4).

Considering all of the attention that is devoted to No. 10, the continued production from Hopkins has to leave defensive coordinators bewildered when attempting to come up with tactics to slow down the Texans' passing game. If you commit all of your resources to stopping Hopkins, Stills and Fuller are good enough to make you pay (while Hopkins continues to get his touches). If you leave Hopkins in single coverage, the All-Pro pass catcher will make life miserable for cornerbacks on the island, single-handedly destroying your defense.

"They have a dog in Hopkins who will absolutely kill you if you don't double him," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "He is so good that you have to make sure that you take No. 10 out of the game. But the other guys (Stills and Fuller) are good enough to beat you on their own, too.

"They are a hard group to defend. Probably the hardest unit to game plan against, in my opinion."

2) How Baltimore built a roster overflowing with Pro Bowlers. The Pro Bowl might be a popularity contest, but NFL executives are still studying the list to see which teams are building their rosters the right way. And if the number of selections is any indication of the championship potential of a squad, executives and scouts should pay close attention to the work being done by Eric DeCosta and Co. in Baltimore.

DeCosta, who's been with Baltimore since the Ravens' birth in 1996, officially took the GM reins from Ozzie Newsome following the 2018 season. And now his first squad features a dozen Pro Bowl selections: TE Mark Andrews, LS Morgan Cox, CB Marlon Humphrey, RB Mark Ingram, QB Lamar Jackson, OLB Matt Judon, CB Marcus Peters, FB Patrick Ricard, OT Ronnie Stanley, SS Earl Thomas, PK Justin Tucker, OG Marshal Yanda.

Yes, some of those Pro Bowl bids might be the product of simple name recognition. Still, it is hard to question anyRavens when you study the team on tape. Baltimore is a hard-hitting squad with real football players equipped with outstanding skills, instincts and awareness. The organization has always prioritized playing ability over athletic traits and that has been a huge part of the Ravens' success.

"They are going to be true to their board," a former Ravens official told me. "They put an emphasis on getting good football players. We focused on prospects' playing ability and how they played the game on tape. The emphasis is on how he plays and performs, not how well he tests in workouts. The game is played between the lines, so we always focus on how they play the game. That's why it works."

As a young NFL scout in the early 2000s, I used to sit with the Ravens' elders (Newsome, James "Shack" Harris, Art Perkins and others) at the NFL Scouting Combine to gain better insight on how to evaluate players and build a championship-caliber team. They would share subtle traits to look for in players, but each veteran evaluator would encourage valuing playing ability over everything else. They would constantly tell me that the game tape reveals the prospect's "DNA," and that you shouldn't dismiss a good player if he doesn't have exceptional athletic traits or physical tools. In fact, they told me to prioritize toughness and instincts because, in their perspective, every good football player who has made a mark in this league has possessed those traits. Looking at the Ravens' list of Pro Bowlers, there's no disputing the toughness and instincts that each of the players on the list displays.

In addition to identifying good football players on the scouting trail, the Ravens are arguably the best team at matching players with expected responsibilities. The coaching staff excels at putting each player in the best position to succeed; instructing guys to play to their strengths has been a constant in Baltimore over the years.

"Baltimore has always combined good football players with great teachers," the former Ravens official said. "Great coaches will put the players in a position to do what they do well. ... That's how you get good prospects to play well as pros. That's what Baltimore has always done pretty well."

When I worked as a scout in the league, I remember talent evaluators raving about the Ravens' draft each year, and how they would put together teams that were built for the long haul. Although it didn't necessarily result in a dynasty, Baltimore was consistently a tough out for opponents.

Boasting a roster loaded with Pro Bowlers, the Ravens are not only title contenders, but they are re-establishing the team-building standard in the scouting world. By placing an emphasis on acquiring rock-solid football players with toughness, instincts and proven playmaking ability, the Ravens are showing evaluators that pure football players trump raw athletes when it comes to building a championship-caliber team.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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