When January rolls around, the Cowboys might be one of the most complete teams in the league. The question is whether they’ll still be playing.
Dallas beat the Chiefs 28-17 on Sunday in a statement victory that showed what they are capable of, and also how much every NFC contender should be hoping the Cowboys miss the playoffs. They allowed one outrageous pseudo Hail Mary to the Chiefs just before halftime, but otherwise shut down Kansas City, holding All-World running back Kareem Hunt to just 37 rushing yards on nine carries. Alex Smith, who finished with 263 yards and two touchdowns, was cornered into his first interception of the season: On fourth-and-8, down 11 points, and with just over five minutes to go, he forced a throw to tight end Travis Kelce that safety Jeff Heath came away with. If you take away Kansas City’s awesome-but-improbable Hail Mary screen, the Sean Lee–led defense held one of the best teams in the league to 10 points.
Sean Lee is a huge difference-maker pic.twitter.com/EqsS25HGV0— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) November 5, 2017
Lee leads the team in tackles despite missing two games with a hamstring injury earlier this season. That still fails to capture how much he means to the Cowboys defense. In games with Lee this season, the Cowboys have allowed just 18.0 points per game—a mark that would be the fifth best in the league.
On Sunday, Dak Prescott’s continued growth on offense was on display. In the second quarter, on third-and-goal from the 10, Dak dropped back. But after seeing there was no spy keeping tabs on him, he bolted out of the pocket, maintained his balance after being tripped by defensive lineman Allen Bailey, and jogged into the end zone.
Later in the game, after leading a drive into the red zone in the fourth quarter, Dak rolled to his right and found Cole Beasley along the sideline on first-and-goal for a touchdown to put the game away. He finished the day with 249 yards and two touchdowns.
Prescott deploys his mobility selectively rather than relying on it as a crutch, and his ability to extend a play or pick up yards himself is integrated into the offense. When Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott start working their read options in short yardage situations, they’re unstoppable. In games like Sunday’s, when the Cowboys offense and defense are both humming, Dallas feels capable of beating anyone in the league.
And yet, there’s a serious chance this team misses the playoffs. At 5-3, they sit 2.5 games out of first place in the NFC East. Though they have two more games left against the Eagles, including a Week 17 New Year’s Eve showdown that could decide the division, Philly is in the driver’s seat right now. That leaves Dallas—who earned a first-round bye after going 13-3 last season—looking at a wild-card spot.
It will be a tight race. Dallas will be competing with a host of teams. That group includes whoever gets second place in the NFC South—likely the 6-2 Saints or 6-3 Panthers—not to mention the other NFC first-round bye team on the verge of missing the playoffs, 4-4 Atlanta. They’ll also have to contend with the second-place NFC West team, which looks like either the Seahawks or the Rams. Throw in the 3-4 Lions (who could easily be 5-2), the 4-3 (but Aaron Rodgers–less) Packers, and the 4-4 Redskins, and the Cowboys are part of a crowded field.
Dallas might be the best team of that bunch, but that may not translate to its record. A court ruling this week may finally force running back Elliott to serve his six-game suspension after a league investigation found “substantial and persuasive evidence” he committed domestic violence. Left tackle Tyron Smith, who already has a back injury, hurt his groin in Sunday’s win. Receiver Dez Bryant left the game with an ankle injury, though it did not appear to be serious. The Cowboys’ non-Prescott stars may either miss large chunks of time or be going at less than 100 percent just as the team takes on the heft of its schedule. Dallas has to face the Falcons, Seahawks, Chargers, and the Eagles twice in the second half. If the Cowboys don’t emerge with five victories in their final eight games, they might be watching the playoffs from home—a nightmare for the Cowboys, but a dream for every other NFC team.