Cowboys playoff outlook: Where Dallas stands in NFC, paths to improvement, prediction

Cowboys playoff outlook: Where Dallas stands in NFC, paths to improvement, prediction
Cowboys playoff outlook: Where Dallas stands in NFC, paths to improvement, prediction

The 9-3 Dallas Cowboys have been a wrecking ball and arguably the NFL's most dominant team this season. Wins and losses are the only metric that matters in the NFL when it comes to playoff position, but if there were a committee that factored in "style points" to decide playoff position, as is the case in college football, the Cowboys would be sitting pretty.

Their +127-point differential leads the NFL, ranks as Dallas' best through 12 games since 2007 when it earned the top seed in the NFC, and it's the first time the Cowboys lead the league in point differential through Week 13 since 1994. The 1994 season was Barry Switzer's first as the Cowboys head coach after Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones had a tense parting of ways. That team went 12-4 before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, led by Hall of Famers Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and Bryant Young. The following season, Dallas went 12-4 again before winning its third and final Super Bowl title of the 1990s, the last time the Cowboys advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game.

Best point differential in 2022

* First time leading NFL in point differential through Week 13 since 1994 (+156)

The Cowboys scoring defense has been consistent all year, ranking third in the NFL by allowing only 17.2 points per game. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's unit has only surrendered 20 or more points in only four games this year, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL, thanks to linebacker Micah Parsons making a Defensive Player of the Year push and cornerback Trevon Diggsimprovement

However, the Cowboys offense has now caught up with the defense, jumping from being ranked 23rd in scoring offense through the first six weeks of the season, 18.3 points per game, to now also ranking third in scoring offense, putting up 27.8 points per game, tied with the Buffalo Bills' season output. The cause for their scoring boost: quarterback Dak Prescott's return from his thumb injury in Week 7. Dallas averages a league-best 37.2 points per game with him back on the field since Week 7. The Cowboys scoring rebound has been downright historic with their 199 points in the last five games, since Prescott's second game back on the field, ranking as the most in a five-game span in team history. 

Cowboys offense since Prescott's Week 7 return

PPG

37.2

1st

Total YPG

411.0

2nd

Pass YPG

238.0

8th

Rush YPG

173.0

2nd

3rd Down Pct

56.6%

1st

Red Zone TD Pct

87.0%

2nd

But where, exactly, do they sit in the current playoff picture? And how tough is their remaining schedule? What could they improve upon as they prepare to make another run into the playoffs? And where do we think they'll end up? Below, find everything you need to know about the Cowboys' postseason outlook, including a prediction for their 2022 finish:

Current playoff position

Following 12 games and 13 weeks, the Cowboys (9-3) are slotted as the fifth seed in the NFC, the top wild card team, about three-quarters of the way through the 2022 season. Dallas' 9-3 record is the same as two of the AFC's top teams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, and there are only two divisions in football in which the Cowboys wouldn't either be in sole possession of first place or tied for the top spot: the NFC North, led by the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings, a team the Cowboys defeated 40-3 in Week 11, and the NFC East, their division which includes the 11-1 Philadelphia Eagles, the team with the NFL's best record. 

No team has won the NFC East in consecutive seasons since the Eagles did so from 2001-2004, and the Cowboys were last season's NFC East champion. There's still a path to catch the Eagles since the two teams play one more time, but the path has to include Philadelphia losing one more time outside of their game at AT&T Stadium on Christmas Eve. Meaning that loss would have to come in one of the Eagles' two games against the New York Giants, on the road against the Chicago Bears, or at home against the New Orleans Saints.

Given Philadelphia's only loss was at home against the Washington Commanders, a team that just tied with the Giants in Week 13, that's the Cowboys' best hope to trip up the Eagles. 

For Dallas, it's simple: Just keep winning, and there's a chance the No. 1 seed could be theirs. If the Cowboys can't climb past the Eagles in the standings, they're going to be hitting the road on Super Wild Card Weekend and will likely face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the current NFC South leaders. Playing Brady on the road in the postseason is certainly a route the Silver and Blue would like to avoid. 

Remaining schedule

The Cowboys have five games left in the 2022 regular season, and their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .508, giving them the 18th-toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, a middle-the-pack level of difficulty according to Tankathon

14

vs. Texas

1-10-1

15

at Jaguars

4-8

16

vs. Eagles

11-1

17

at Titans

7-5

18

at Commanders

7-5-1

After curb-stomping the Indianapolis Colts 54-19 last week, Dallas shouldn't have many problems with the Texans and Jaguars, the two teams below the Colts in the AFC South standings. Week 16 is the big one, the rematch against the Eagles in Dallas, but this time the Cowboys have Prescott as their quarterback instead of his backup, Cooper Rush.

However, Rush wasn't on the field playing defense as Dallas committed a season-high six defensive penalties and missed eight tackles, tied for their fourth-most in a game this season, in the 26-17 road loss in Philadelphia. That loss left Quinn and Parsons feeling "pissed." Safe to say they're likely counting down the days until Christmas Eve. 

"We have really high standards for how we want to play, and when we don't meet them, we're pissed about it," Quinn said the Monday after the loss in Philadelphia. "We want that ass-kicking performance start to finish: first quarter through the fourth for however long we need to go. That's what I would like to make sure we're focusing on. … When we don't meet them, it makes you mad. We're ready to get going for the next one, but that's how we felt coming out."

"I just have to hone in on my craft and get better this week," Parsons said the Thursday after the Eagles loss. "I personally made some self adjustments and analyzed with coaches, sitting down with them to see about things I can do better and fix my game. This week I'm looking to hush everything up. … [The Eagles] didn't try and come after me … they run an RPO offense, everything is read-option. You got to worry about [Jalen] Hurts, he's a problem. When you have problems, you have to focus on them, so in my eyes, I did my job. You can't control trying to do everything on the field, that only leads to frustration and miscommunication. Just have to do your job out there. It was a big game last week and sometimes, you can get caught up trying to make the big play, which can get you jammed up. We just have to get it cleaned up and back to the details."

Following that pivotal showdown, Dallas has the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans, who are fresh off a 35-10 beatdown loss at the Eagles and firing general manager Jon Robinson. Running back Derrick Henry always poses a threat, but since Week 11, the Cowboys have allowed 89.7 rushing yards per game, eighth-fewest in the league in that span, while going up against some of the NFL's top rushers –- Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, and Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor

The last game of the Cowboys' regular-season slate is a rematch with the Commanders, a team Dallas defeated 25-10 in a battle of now-backup quarterbacks, Carson Wentz vs. Cooper Rush. The Cowboys might not be able to coast in this final regular-season game since Washington could very much remain alive in the chase for the last NFC wild card spot. 

Areas for improvement

Prescott's decision-making: Prescott's return to the lineup has breathed new life into the Cowboys offense as detailed above. His 13 passing touchdowns are tied for the second-most in the NFL since he came back behind only Eagles quarterback and NFL MVP front-runner Jalen Hurts' 14. The problem: Prescott's six interceptions are tied for the second-most in the NFL since he returned behind only Josh Allen's and Davis Mills' seven. Four of those interceptions came in two games: the 31-28 overtime loss at the Green Bay Packers in Week 10 and the 28-20 win against the New York Giants in Week 12 on Thanksgiving. 

Prescott by the numbers since Week 7 return

Completion Percentage

71.0%

3rd

Pass Yards/Attempts

7.8

10th

Pass TD

13

T-2nd

INT

6

T-26th

Passer Rating

103.8

6th

Against the Packers, both of them were picked off by Green Bay safety Rudy Ford after he beat tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to the football, a sign of Prescott not being on the same page with his pass catchers. The first of his two interceptions against the Giants on Thanksgiving was a case of locking on to receiver Michael Gallup early in the play and not getting the ball out to him quickly enough as Giants safety Rodarius Williams

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