The Dallas Cowboys look like the NFL’s best team after 13 weeks. They have the best record (11-1), have beaten a handful of playoff contenders in recent weeks and have proved they can win ugly. At this point in time, Dallas appears to be the favorite to win the Super Bowl -- even surpassing the almighty Patriots. So what could possibly prevent the Cowboys from winning it all?
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Ah, the man behind it all. The owner, president and GM: Mr. Jerry Jones. It might sound illogical to include a guy who doesn’t even play, but he has a huge impact on this team. He was a big part of Dallas taking Elliott and -- along with Will McClay, a guy who’s likely to be a GM in a few years -- has helped build the roster that is having so much success. So how can Jones derail the Cowboys’ playoff hopes? By doing what Jerry does.
Jones has had a history of getting himself too involved in team decisions. He likes to be in the thick of things, moreso than every other GM in the league. When the Cowboys begin their playoff run, pressure will be sky-high. Jones may choose to mosey on down to the sideline and stand next to his prodigy, Jason Garrett. Should Prescott begin to struggle for some reason, Jones might push Garrett to give Romo a shot. Not likely, but with Jerry, you just never know.
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A reeling secondary
The Cowboys have struggled against the pass this season. While they’ve shut down opponents’ running games, the secondary has been suspect. Dallas’ pass defense ranks 29th in the NFL in yards allowed and has the second-fewest interceptions in the league (four). The Cowboys have gone five straight games without a pick, which is a concerning trend as the season winds down. So what does this mean ahead of the playoffs? That the Cowboys are susceptible to teams airing it out against them.
The absence of Morris Claiborne has significantly hurt the secondary, as did Barry Church’s injury. But even with Church back and Claiborne likely to return for the postseason run, Dallas’ pass defense isn’t great by any means. Brandon Carr is a good No. 2, and rookie Anthony Brown has played extremely well, but they lack a Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, Marcus Peters on the roster. Their inability to create turnovers will hurt in the playoffs, especially when takeaways are needed most.
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Ezekiel Elliott wearing down
After Thursday night’s win, Elliott was asked about hitting the proverbial rookie wall. His response? "I don't believe in the rookie wall.” That’s all well and good, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t wear down in the coming weeks. Elliott was a workhorse at Ohio State, and a very productive one. The most carries he received in a season, though, was just 289.
He’s already at 263 this season, and though he hasn’t lost a step, the Cowboys have to be concerned about overworking him. Consider this: Elliott is averaging 22 carries per game. If he continues on that pace, he’ll finish the year with 351 carries. That’d be 62 more than he’s ever had in a single season in his life – and that’s not even including a playoff run. Assuming the Cowboys get a first-round bye, Elliott could be north of 400 carries by the time Dallas reaches the Super bowl. Elliott is young and has fresh legs, but that’s a lot of carries, not to mention the number of times he has to block for Prescott or catch passes out of the backfield.
Dak Prescott’s inexperience
Here’s a question for you: How many rookie quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl? Answer: Zero. Nada. Zilch. None. Could Dak Prescott buck that trend and become the first this season? It’s certainly possible, but there will be obstacles along the way. Inexperience shows up most in the playoffs. Pressure mounts, games are closer and more meaningful, and playing with poise becomes more difficult.
Prescott, admittedly, isn’t like other rookies. He looks as comfortable as a 10-year veteran and rarely makes mistakes. He’s thrown just two interceptions in 12 starts while completing 67.9 percent of his passes. Unfortunately, those stellar stats mean nothing in the postseason. Everything is wiped clean and numbers are reset to zero. Prescott can’t afford to play with more urgency come playoff time, trying to do more than he needs to and making something out of nothing. Missing open receivers can’t happen, and he has to avoid strip sacks – something that’s plagued an otherwise incredible season. He should be fine, but history shows rookies have a hard time in the postseason.
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Due to the fact that they’re 11-1, the Cowboys don’t get much attention for the number of injuries they’ve overcome. Besides losing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant early in the year, the Cowboys have also seen All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith, No. 1 corner Morris Claiborne, safety Barry Church and guard La’el Collins all go down this season. Dallas has proven it can get past injuries on either side of the ball, but the NFL is unpredictable. Players can get hurt at any moment, and while the Cowboys have depth, an injury could derail their title hopes.
Should Elliott or Bryant or even linebacker Sean Lee go down, Dallas' chances of winning the Super Bowl will plummet. An injury to Prescott would be less crushing considering Romo is ready to go at the drop of the hat, but he hasn’t played in more than a year. Additionally, if Claiborne is somehow unable to return for the playoff run, Dallas’ secondary would lack the shutdown corner most Super Bowl teams have. He should be back toward the end of the season, but that’s not to say he – or someone else – won’t get hurt once again.
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Lack of a pass rush
At this point in the season, every team has its weaknesses. The Patriots lack a pass rush, Seattle can’t protect Russell Wilson, Oakland’s defense is suspect, and the Broncos’ quarterback play leaves plenty to be desired. For Dallas, it’s the inability to pressure quarterbacks that hurts the team more than anything. Some of the most recent Super Bowl champions have had outstanding pass rushes, from the Giants to the Seahawks to the Broncos. The Cowboys don’t have even a decent one, and that’s huge.
Dallas rankis 22nd with 23 sacks on the year. Its leader in that department is Tyrone Crawford, who has 3.5 this season. What does that mean? Not only is their best pass rusher a DT-turned-DE, but the Cowboys don’t have a guy who gives offensive lines trouble on the edge. DeMarcus Lawrence can be that guy, but his play since returning from suspension has been underwhelming (one sack). The worst part is Dallas put itself in this position by ignoring the pass rush in free agency, the draft and before the trade deadline.
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The best team standing in Dallas’ way for a Super Bowl win is the Seattle Seahawks. Not the Patriots, not the Falcons, not the Broncos. The Seahawks. Dallas is built upon running the ball and protecting the football on offense. What does Seattle do extremely well? Stop the run and create turnovers. That’s exactly why the Seahawks pose the biggest threat to the Cowboys’ playoff chances. And more likely than not, these two teams will meet in the NFC Championship game, considering the rest of the conference is mostly underwhelming.
Seattle doesn’t have a great offensive line. Actually, it’s one of the worst in football; so is Dallas’ pass rush. That gives Seattle the advantage in that department, while the Seahawks’ stout defensive line matches up well with Dallas’ offensive line. Think about the way Minnesota’s defense caused problems for the Cowboys. The Vikings created turnovers and hounded Prescott while playing a boring style of offense. Seattle does the same except their offense is far superior with weapons all over the place. The Seahawks could easily knock Dallas out of the playoffs if they meet.