When the Dallas receiver failed to stop the clock late in the team's season-opening loss to the Giants, no one had a clue how tough it would be to defeat these Cowboys going forward. Now, three months later, with Dallas locking up the No. 1 seed in the NFC a matter of inevitability, it's time to ask: Can anyone in the conference beat these Cowboys?
Here are the NFC playoff hopefuls we'd give the best chance to take down America's Team in what amounts to a one-game season this January:
1) Seattle Seahawks: Apologies to myself, but this is the real biggest obstacle to a Cowboys Super Bowl berth. To win in Dallas, a team will need either a physical defense that can match the Cowboys up front or a top-shelf quarterback who can take advantage of Dallas' utter lack of a pass rush. The Seahawks have both.
Even after losing safety Earl Thomas for the season, this Seattle defensive core is historically scary. They are headed to their fifth straight season as the league's No. 1 scoring defense -- matching the NFL record -- with Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor all playing at peak form. They have their own version of Dak Prescott, but one who is four years ahead in his development. They have a group of players that has won more than twice as many playoff games together (seven) than the Cowboys' franchise has in the last 20 years (three).
2) Atlanta Falcons: If Dallas wins the Super Bowl, it will be with one of the worst championship defenses in our lives. Currently ranked No. 26 in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA metrics, the Cowboys win games with their defense just barely holding on. One recipe to beat them, then, is to just score every possession. And no team, not even Dallas, scores on a higher percentage of possessions than Atlanta. No team throws for more yards per attempt or scores more points than the Falcons.
The Redskins gained more than 500 yards in just eight possessions against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, but Washington made too many mistakes. The Falcons have an even better roster than Washington's when it comes to pulling off a shootout win. Records aside, these Falcons and Cowboys teams aren't that different. Atlanta just folds too often in the fourth quarter. Both teams are deeply imbalanced, and Atlanta is the rare team that can match Dallas' firepower, even if it accomplishes it in different ways. The Falcons' defense is a major problem, and it's the reason why the team would be significant underdogs. But it's not hard to imagine Atlanta's offensive strength overwhelming the Cowboys for one afternoon.
3) Washington Redskins: They out-gained the Cowboys by 152 yards in Week 12. Dallas' pass rush couldn't get a whiff of Kirk Cousins, who rained deep passes on them with impunity. Familiarity is an asset here. Beating the same team three times in one season would be a difficult task for the Cowboys, and both ofthe first two matchups were decided by only one score.
4) Green Bay Packers: Here we go again, giving the Packers way too much credit because Aaron Rodgers threw a few fancy passes just to get his team to .500. Consider the parameters of this particular thought exercise, though. A Packers team that would face Dallas in January would have to be on a roll to even get that far in the first place. The offense, which has expanded each week of late, now has Jordy Nelson looking like his old self and Davante Adams playing like a top-shelf starter. The Packers have a difficult road just to get to the playoffs, but they would be a tough out if they get there.
Minnesota's Week 13 magnum opus on defense was quickly forgotten because the Vikings' special teams and offensive line blew the game, but it showed that the Vikings have one recipe to beat Dallas. Minnesota corner Xavier Rhodes did an excellent job on Dez Bryant. The depth and flexibility on the defensive line allowed the unit to create pressure with stunts and quickness on inside rushes from Brian Robison. Danielle Hunter and friends waged a full-scale attack on Dallas' weak link, right tackle Doug Free. The Vikings stayed disciplined on Dak Prescott's rollouts and confused him with pre-snap looks. Minnesota was simply more physical than Dallas, something no other team had accomplished all season.
6) Detroit Lions: The Lions' defense held the Saints to 13 points in the Superdome last Sunday, a performance that forces civilization to re-think everything we thought we knew about this defensive group. A chance for revenge for the team's 2014 playoff loss would be sweet theatre, and we know a fourth-quarter deficit would not faze Matthew Stafford. With that said, not even Detroit's 10-man defensive line rotation is deep enough to stop the Cowboys' running game.
7) New York Giants: This low ranking feels disrespectful considering the Week 1 result, but this is a Giants team more likely to crash down the stretch on the way to 9-7 than a team ready to make playoff noise. If not for Odell Beckham -- a big if -- this would be one of the most inert offenses in football. The Cowboys have the weapons to take advantage of the Giants' linebacker group, one soft spot in an otherwise excellent defense. The loss of Jason Pierre-Paul just makes this unit so much less dynamic, as we expect to see illustrated Sunday night.
(Nope, there's no way this comes back to haunt me. Not a chance.)
8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers:Jameis Winston and friends will get a chance to quickly prove me wrong next week on "Sunday Night Football" in JerryWorld. Their formula during their recent turnaround has been all about Winston magic, young players emerging and the defense forcing turnovers. But few teams are harder to force into mistakes than Dallas.
This is a Buccaneers squad already playing with house money -- just reaching nine wins this season would be a huge victory for them. They simply don't have the firepower on either side of the ball to win on the road in the Divisional Round.