Despite their recent slip-up against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys have established themselves as the best team in the NFC. The road to the Super Bowl will likely go through Dallas, which is a huge advantage considering they’ve lost just one game at home – the season opener, nonetheless.
The New England Patriots are probably their biggest threat as far as Super Bowl chances go, but who holds that title in the NFC? The Giants are an obvious choice, considering they’ve already topped Dallas twice, but there are plenty of other teams that could knock the Cowboys out in a potential playoff meeting.
Here are the Cowboys’ seven biggest threats in the NFC, ranked in order of least daunting to terrifying.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have had arguably the best defense in the NFL over the past month, and it’s a huge reason they’re on a five-game winning streak, beating the Chiefs and Seahawks along the way. What makes their defense so good is that they don’t have to blitz. In their past two games, they blitzed just eight times but recorded three sacks and five interceptions, allowing just two touchdowns to Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
The Cowboys’ offensive line is outstanding, but if Tampa Bay can get pressure by rushing just four (much like the Giants and Vikings can do), the Bucs can drop seven into coverage against Dak Prescott. Most of the best defenses in the NFL are able to get home with just four rushers, and that’s what the Buccaneers can do.
On offense, they don’t necessarily match up well. Mike Evans is a big, physical receiver, but both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can handle him in coverage. It’s the speedy receivers that give Dallas problems, which the Buccaneers lack. They’re also very reliant on Evans, who has nearly twice as many receiving yards as the next closest target (TE Cameron Brate).
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Even the best offenses failed to beat the Cowboys with just the Giants’ stout defense proving to be the team’s kryptonite, but Atlanta’s aerial attack is arguably the best in the league. Matt Ryan and a healthy Julio Jones could shred Dallas’ defense the way they did last season, when he caught 12 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, things have changed since Week 3 of last year, but Jones is still one of the three-best wide receivers in football when healthy. Like Odell Beckham Jr., he can take a slant against Brandon Carr to the house for a touchdown at any moment, which should terrify the Cowboys if they were to meet in the postseason.
Atlanta’s pass rush isn’t the greatest (15th in sacks), which could be an issue against Dallas’ offensive line. Not having Desmond Trufant on the outside to cover Dez Bryant also hurts, but Robert Alford has played extremely well in his spot.
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Green Bay Packers
The Packers are one of the hottest teams in football right now, winning their past three games by an average margin of nearly 17 points. The offense is firing on all cylinders thanks to Aaron Rodgers, and the defense has improved greatly now that guys are finally getting healthy.
The Packers don’t have an elite cornerback or a consistent ground game, but that’s not how they win games. They put the ball in Aaron Rodgers’ hands and win on defense with good run defense and solid pressure on the edges with Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. Elliott had his best game of the season against the Packers, so that’s not particularly promising, but having a healthy defense this time around should help.
If the Packers do somehow find themselves playing against the Cowboys yet again, they’ll have to turn the game into a shootout because they certainly can’t control the clock with a running game.
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If the Seahawks were fully healthy and Earl Thomas was on the field, they’d probably be the second-biggest threat to Dallas. He’s a game-changer in center field and can take away big plays over the top. He’s also one of the best run-defending free safeties in the game today, which is obviously a huge part of Dallas’ game.
Even without Thomas, though, Seattle matches up well with the Cowboys. The Seahawks are experienced and built for January football, a time of year when Russell Wilson rarely loses. Richard Sherman has always given Dez Bryant issues when following him around the field, while Bobby Wagner is a player who flies around the field in coverage.
Pair those two players with Seattle’s bevy of pass rushers and it’s easy to understand why the defense is so good year in and year out. And that’s all without mentioning Kam Chancellor, the top enforcer in the NFL. On the downside, Seattle doesn’t travel well. All four of the Seahawks’ losses have come on the road, as did their tie to the Cardinals. Securing home-field advantage will be difficult, too, with Dallas holding a firm grip on it.
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We’ll find out just how big of a threat the Lions are to the Cowboys in a few weeks, but on paper, they could give Dallas fits. For many of the same reasons that the Redskins do, the Lions are explosive on offense with a bevy of weapons. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate are a handful to contain, particularly after the catch. Eric Ebron has the ability to make plays as a pass-catching tight end, and while the Lions can’t run the ball, Theo Riddick is a huge receiving threat out of the backfield.
Darius Slay, given his size and length, matches up well with Dez Bryant on the outside. Cole Beasley is a mismatch on the inside, and Jason Witten can take advantage of their safeties, which could be a problem. Detroit has done a good job stopping the run, though, ranking 11th in that department.
As with all Lions games, a meeting with the Cowboys in the playoffs would likely come down to the final few possessions. That’s not a situation Dallas wants to face with a rookie quarterback and a suspect defense with Matthew Stafford and his record eight game-winning drives on the other side.
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The Cowboys swept the Redskins this season, but then again they lost to only one team all year. Washington, however, poses a significant threat to Dallas in a potential playoff meeting. The Redskins lost to the Cowboys twice by a combined nine points with Washington having a good shot of winning both games at different points.
The Redskins boast a high-powered offense that counters Dallas’ defense very well. DeSean Jackson is a speedy deep threat who can hit a home run from anywhere on the field, while Pierre Garcon is a nice complement to him. Jamison Crowder is a nightmare matchup in the slot, and Jordan Reed’s receiving ability adds another wrinkle to the offense. Dallas has a decent secondary, but Washington’s receivers are among the best in the league.
On defense, Josh Norman is the key. He routinely gets the best of Bryant, whether it’s by playing physical man-to-man defense or by constantly jawing after every play. He has the ability to take away Dallas’ big-play receiver, forcing Dak Prescott to go elsewhere.
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New York Giants
The team that has beaten the Cowboys twice is well deserving of holding the top spot on this list – and the Giants are the only team to beat Dallas this season. The Giants proved to have the perfect formula for taking down the almighty Cowboys, and it’s one that not many teams can match.
The Giants boast a strong defensive line, physical cornerbacks and a rangy, active safety in the middle of the field. Janoris Jenkins has shut down Dez Bryant twice, while the defensive front has limited Ezekiel Elliott to 158 yards on 44 attempts (3.6 yards per carry) and one touchdown. They did a better job limiting the rookie than any other team thus far, and that’s no coincidence.
The aspect of New York’s game that’s lacking is the offense. Odell Beckham Jr. on Brandon Carr is a huge mismatch on crossing routes (see his 61-yard TD), but Morris Claiborne would likely be back for a potential playoff meeting. He’s a much better matchup for Beckham and would make a world of difference.