The Dallas Cowboysclinched a playoff berth Sunday following Washington's loss, news that brought all the excitement of a digital clock turning midnight. The Cowboys can get used to the lack of drama. The NFC East is also all but won following the Giants' loss in Pittsburgh, forcing us to start looking ahead to the Cowboys' playoff run.
Dallas has aced every possible regular-season test. They've won shootouts against high-flying offenses like the Steelersand Redskins. They've completed comebacks against strong defenses like the Eaglesand Ravens. The Cowboys even showed Thursday night they could win a defensive battle on the road in Minnesota, a rare game where their power-packed offense lacked electricity.
Securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC is a matter of when, not if. A chance to avenge the team's only loss thus farnext week at MetLife Stadium could be the last truly meaningful game the Cowboys play until mid-January. In the meantime, the Fighting Daks will adjust to their new role. With December here, they have transformed from the season's best story to favorites for the Super Bowl. Now comes the hard part.
Here are three potential obstacles that could stand in Dallas' way of making a successful title run:
Getting too comfortable
With little at stake down the stretch, the Cowboys lost two of their final three-regular season games before crashing out to the eventual champion Giants in the Divisional Round. That Giants team played all their starters in a "meaningless" Week 17 loss to the undefeated Patriots, while Romo and other Cowboys were benched midway through the third quarter of a regular-season finale loss to the Redskins. Dallas went into the playoffs playing mediocre football despite a 13-3 record.
Too much time will be spent in the coming month discussing whether the Cowboys should rest their starters and when it should happen. Focus more on whether Dallas continues to improve as a team.
The Cowboys have been out-gained by 206 yards over the last two weeks against the Redskins and Vikings. They have lost the time of possession battle by at least six minutes each week and run 37 fewer offensive plays than their opponents. This team is built entirely on its offense, and its offense is coming off its worst performance of the season.
The Vikings' defense took advantage of the offensive line's big weakness (Doug Free in pass protection) and took chances with their safeties near the line of scrimmage, a recipe Seattle could use in a possible playoff matchup. They confused Dak Prescott at times. It's a credit to the Cowboys they found a way to win both of those games, but coach Jason Garrett does not want these trends to continue. He needs to keep his team laser-focused on getting better in December, because that's what Dallas' rivals will be doing.
Garrett does not want to enter a Divisional Round game against a playoff-tested opponent with the Cowboys' last truly great performance having come on Thanksgiving. The next four weeks may not impact the Cowboys much in the standings, but they are vital for a team led by its young stars. You can't take a break from greatness.
Failing to stay healthy
Resting players would be a mistake anytime before achieving a comfortable margin in Week 17, but Garrett can still be careful. MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott is on pace for 387 touches in his rookie season, and there's no reason the team can't use quality backup running back Alfred Morris more to keep Elliott fresh for the playoffs. Veteran receiver Dez Bryant is another Cowboy whose snaps could be monitored late in the season.
As a rookie quarterback, Prescott could use every bit of experience he can get. Teams have thrown more blitz packages at him in recent weeks, with success. Getting Tony Romo "one last start" in Week 17 would be a distraction before Dallas' playoff bye and a waste of snaps. Prescott needs the reps.
The bigger obstacle when it comes to injuries remains, as always, blind luck. Garrett should be careful about suiting players up who are fighting through injuries, but there's not much he can do but pray to the Football Gods when it comes to avoiding new injuries to his major players.
The Cowboys' offseason was plagued by defensive injuries, but this is a healthy squad overall. The only starter on injured reserve is guard La'el Collins, and the Cowboys may have upgraded at the position when Ronald Leary replaced him. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is the only key starter out of action, although he's expected to return from a groin injury before the end of the season. The Cowboys have enjoyed positive injury luck this season and can only hope that continues over the next month. Injuries happen, and the team can't run out the clock on this regular season out of fear.
Failing to find a pass rush
The Cowboys have coached around their defensive deficiencies with effort, tackling and timely plays by an underrated secondary. That doesn't mean this is a quality defense. Dallas entered Week 13 with the No. 27 defense in football according to Football Outsiders' excellent DVOA efficiency metric. If you prefer play-by-play grading, Pro Football Focus ranks the Cowboys as the No. 31 pass rush.
The return of DeMarcus Lawrence gave Dallas a little juice, and versatile lineman Tyrone Crawford can make occasional plays lining up on the inside or out. Still, this is one of the worst pass-rushing groups in the league, and the Cowboys continue to search for the right formula, with Benson Mayowa, Ryan Davis and David Irving all struggling to make much of an impact. With some shaky offensive lines next on the schedule (Giants, Bucs, Lions), they should use the next month to get better up front.
Already superstars in their hometown of Dallas, this Cowboys team will be treated as conquering heroes for the next month. They need to stay vigilant about what got them here. As Romo learned nearly a decade ago, regular-season dominance doesn't always translate to January. Oh, and we'd recommend skipping any bye-week trips to Cabo.