Three things Cowboys must do to reach NFC Championship Game for first time since 1995

The Dallas Cowboys’ 31-10 loss in their Week 15 game at the Buffalo Bills appeared to be a harbinger of doom for a team that felt this year was different after a 10-3 start.

However, thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles’ stunning 20-17 loss at the Drew Lock-led Seattle Seahawks on Monday night that dropped their record to 10-4, the Cowboys still have a chance at the NFC East division title and home playoff games in the first two rounds of the postseason after clinching a berth on Sunday for the third season in a row. That’s a feat not accomplished in Dallas since the Cowboys did so in six consecutive seasons: 1991-1996. They won Super Bowls in 1992, 1993 and 1995, which is the last time they reached an NFC Championship Game.   

“Hey, this gauntlet of games is laid out nice for us and this is an example of it,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. “None of us feel good about what happened in Buffalo yesterday. That’s not who we are, as far as how we believe in our team.”  

Here are the three ways the Cowboys can fix some issues now with three games remaining in the regular season — at the 10-4 Miami Dolphins in Week 16, versus the 10-4 Detroit Lions in Week 17 and at the 4-10 Washington Commanders in Week 18 — in order to put themselves in a position to prove who they are and to avoid another postseason exit prior to the NFC Championship Game.

Secure NFC East crown, ensuring at least two playoff home games

If the regular season ended today, the Cowboys and Eagles would be down to tiebreaker No. 5 for the division title. That tiebreaker is strength of victory — the combined won-lost-tied percentage of all of the teams a franchise has defeated. Philadelphia currently has the edge with a .493 strength of victory to the Cowboys’ .379. 

Fortunately for Dallas, they play the AFC East-leading Dolphins and NFC North-leading Lions in each of their next two games. Should they win out, including a second win against the Commanders, a team they beat 45-10 on Thanksgiving, that standing has the potential to flip. The Eagles play the 5-9 New York Giants twice with a matchup against the 3-11 Arizona Cardinals in the middle of those two against the G-Men. Winning the division is a necessity given the Cowboys are 3-4 on the road and 7-0 at home this season. 

“You can’t get to where you want to go being a .500 team on the road,” McCarthy said of his team’s road struggles Monday. “You’re not going to be playing playoff games at home with that record either. It’s definitely a focus for us.”  

Sunday’s faceplant is part of a season-wide trend for the Cowboys. At home, they lead the NFL in scoring offense (39.9 points per game), turnover margin (+10), third-down conversion rate (53.6%), point differential (+171) and time of possession (35:11). On the road, all of their numbers in those same categories are considerably worse. 

Cowboys by location this season

HOME ROAD

W-L

7-0*

3-4

PPG

39.9*

21.7

PPG allowed

15.4*

22.3

Point differential

+171*

-4

Total YPG

431.7*

304.6

Total YPG allowed

289.4

299.1  

Turnover margin

+10*

-1

Third-down percentage

53.6%*

43.3%

Time of possession

35:11*

28:32

*Top five in NFL

Two of the Cowboys’ last three games, at the Dolphins in Week 16 and at the Commanders in Week 18, are on the road, but a game in South Florida on Christmas Eve will likely have fantastic, calm weather. That’s ideal for quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and the rest of the Cowboys passing game. That part of their offense has become its identity on that side of the ball and in the less than ideal conditions in Buffalo on Sunday, while facing a strong team, struggles occurred.

Winning out the next three weeks and avoiding the necessity to play road playoff games at least until the NFC Championship Game is Dallas’ best path forward, if not its only conceivable path toward true Super Bowl contention. 

Shore up tackling issues

The Cowboys entered Week 15 with an 8.3% missed tackle rate, the lowest in the NFL. Following their debacle of a defeat in Buffalo that included a whopping 17 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, that percentage jumped to 9.3%, pushing their rank to second place behind the New England Patriots’ 8.9% rate for the entire season. 

Those missed tackles, most of which occurred on the edge of the line of scrimmage according to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on Monday, played a massive role in the Bills’ 49 carries going for 266 rushing yards, an average of 5.4 yards a rush and three touchdowns.    

While it would be logical to point toward converted linebacker Markquese Bell, who played safety prior to 2023, and actual safety Jayron Kearse among the defensive backs aligning at linebacker spots thanks to season-ending injuries to Leighton Vander Esch and third-round rookie DeMarvion Overshown as a factor for this run game issue, Quinn pushed back on that school of thought. 

“It’s disappointing knowing that one of the things we hang our hat on is tackling,” Quinn said. “I’m proud of our group. When we don’t hit those marks, there’s lots of things you want to poke a hole at.”  

Many of Bills running back James Cook’s chunk plays as a runner, en route to a career-high 179 yards on Sunday, did occur after slipping a tackle or after a Cowboys defender flailed unsuccessful past him with a lunging tackle attempt. As cliche and coach speak as it sounds, simply executing better in an area Quinn calls a “secret sauce” for his defense could make all the difference in the world. 

That execution will be tested each week to conclude the regular season. The Dolphins (19.5% of rushes with a tackle avoided, second-best rate in the NFL), the Lions (17.8%, fifth-best) and the Commanders (19%, fourth-best) all rank inside the top five of the league when making defenders miss after taking a handoff.

Score early, allowing Micah Parsons and Cowboys pass rush to tee off

McCarthy loves to harp on the importance of “complementary football,” meaning all three phases of the game for the Cowboys — offense, defense and special teams — working in concert to put each other in advantageous positions. None of that occurred on Sunday. The Dallas offense sputtered, resulting in punts on five of its first six drives. Defensive lineman Sam Williams was called for a roughing the kicker penalty on an early Bills punt, and that extra opportunity led to Buffalo scoring a touchdown on the drive to go up 14-0. 

Defensively, that knocked the team out of its desired play style: facing opponents who are trailing and needing to throw the football. Unleashing All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons, whose 89 quarterback pressures lead the NFL and whose 22.8% quarterback pressure rate leads the NFL among players with at least 300 pass-rush snaps, and the Cowboys NFL-best pass rush — they lead the NFL with a 47.1% quarterback pressure rate as a unit — is how Dallas wins. 

In order to do that, quarterback Dak Prescott needs to revive his now dead streak of games with multiple passing touchdowns in the first half. He had a streak of seven in a row entering Week 15, the NFL’s longest since then-NFL MVP Tom Brady did so in eight consecutive games in the New England Patriots’ perfect 16-0 regular season in 2007. 

Continuing to crank up the carries for running back Tony Pollard, who continues to run harder and harder the further he gets from his horrific leg injury he suffered last January at the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round, will be key as will an even larger dose of CeeDee Lamb. Dallas won’t win games with him only hauling in seven catches for 53 yards on 10 targets. Nor will the Cowboys win with their only touchdown coming with under three minutes left to play. 

Everything the Cowboys do in the passing game stems from Prescott’s near-telepathic connection with Lamb on go routes, aka vertical, deep passes, as that connection and the threat of it open up routes over the middle for tight end Jake Ferguson as well as throws underneath to the speedy Brandin Cooks. A strong passing game early can help their defense do what it does best, which will in turn allow the offense to remain in favorable situations for the majority of its ballgames.



The Dallas Cowboys suffered a 31-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 15, which seemed to indicate trouble for a team that had high hopes after a strong start to the season. However, the Cowboys still have a chance to win the NFC East division title and secure home playoff games in the first two rounds of the postseason. This is

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