Sunday, December 27, 2009

Playoff Bound: Dal 17, Was 0

After beginning the month of December with back-to-back losses and a date with the undefeated Saints looming on the schedule, the Cowboys seemed destined for another year of fading late in the season. Instead, the Cowboys handed New Orleans their first loss of 2009, and used a road game against the rival Redskins as the perfect platform to clinch a playoff berth.

Now Dallas will host Philadelphia on the final day of the season for a chance to win the division, host a playoff game (possibly against the Eagles in consecutive weeks), and even have a shot at a first-round bye. The Cowboys' 17-0 shutout of Washington once again showcased the strength of Wade Phillips' defense, and the offense got on the board with an opening-drive touchdown for the second straight week.

The date with the Eagles at Cowboys Stadium won't be as daunting as last season's win-and-you're-in situation that turned into a nightmare in Philadelphia. The winner takes the NFC East and will most likely host the other in the first round, depending on how the Cardinals and Packers do next week. Dallas beat the Eagles in Philadelphia earlier in the season in an impressive 20-16 victory on Sunday Night Football. So while losing next week isn't a deathblow for any hopes to advance in the postseason, it's certainly a better alternative to host a playoff game than go on the road.

Tony Romo has now led the Cowboys to the playoffs in three out of four seasons as the quarterback of America's Team. With his consistently strong play down the stretch this year combined with a defense that has been stifling any opponent not named the Giants, the Cowboys have a potent combination heading into January football.

The Cowboys' defense is the best in the NFC, giving up only 16.7 points per game. The other playoff-bound teams in the NFC? Here's how all these defenses compare:
NFC Playoff TeamPoints Allowed Per Game
Green Bay
New Orleans

The Cowboys are better than the next closest team by almost three points, the amount of points they need to prevent to make up for missing any field goals. And as much as Dallasites love to hate Wade Phillips and his "Aw shucks" attitude around Valley Ranch, there is simply no denying that his defense can take over a game by shutting down an opponent.

On the other side of the ball, here's how these same six teams have done this season. While the Cowboys had the stingiest defense, their offense doesn't fly quite as high as the rest of the point-churning NFC playoff contenders:
NFC Playoff TeamPoints Per Game
New Orleans
Green Bay

Perhaps it's nice to sit back and enjoy the adage of "Defense Wins Championships" at a moment like this. The order of offensive success is a virtual inverse of how the defenses have done this season. We have seen the Cowboys defense hold the likes of the Eagles (16), Saints (17) and Chargers (20) to some of their lowest scoring outputs of the season.

It's going to be a battle beginning in Week 17 as Dallas jockeys with Philadelphia for a home game to open the playoffs. If Dallas gets the home game, they will either face the Eagles for a third time or the Packers for the second time in 2009. Either way, there should be plenty of game tape to go around.

For now, the Cowboys can enjoy this evening, clinching a third trip to the postseason in four years. Now it's just a matter of getting the elusive playoff victory, not seen in Dallas since '96.

Speaking of enjoying the evening, here's a few thoughts on tonight's playoff-clinching win in Washington:
+ Tony Romo finally had a pass picked off for the first time since the first game against Washington, a career-best streak of 167 passes without a pick. And when the streak finally was snapped, it wasn't a bad pass by Romo. The ball was deflected high into the air of the Washington secondary where Reed Doughty did the deed. Romo has 23 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions on the season, and barring a catastrophic performance in Week 17, Romo will have his first single-digit interception season of his career. In 2006 (in just 10 and a half games, mind you), Romo had 13 picks. He followed that with a career-high of 19 in 2007, and 14 in 2008. The seven interceptions have him tied for the third-fewest in the NFL this year.

Romo does have a chance for his second 4,000-yard season if he can get a measly 114 yards passing in Week 17 against the Eagles, which would be a career low (not counting the mail-it-in game against Washington in Week 17 in 2007 when Dallas had already locked up the #1 seed). While he probably won't get a chance to earn a third career Pro Bowl invite (Brees, Rodgers and Favre most likely), the former undrafted quarterback will have a chance to exercise past playoff demons.

+ Miles Austin had a nice game receiving with 9 catches for 92 yards to continue to build on his Pro Bowl-caliber year, however going to the middle of the field instead of to the sideline on his catch at the end of the first half shows how young he still is. A veteran knows to get to the sideline because there are no timeouts left, and you can still get a field goal going into the half. I do wonder why Romo threw to Austin if he was already moving toward the hashmarks instead of away from them. It would have been nice to tack on the extra three points considering the Cowboys were getting the ball in the third quarter. Still, if that's the worst play he makes all season, it shouldn't be too bad. Actually, the worst play he may have made was his run on a reverse out of the Razorback formation that lost 13 yards. It didn't help that Washington sniffed it out early on, but Austin leapt away from defenders in the absolute wrong direction, costing more yardage. It's all part of the learning curve for Miles Austin. It's clearly worth taking the good with this little bit of the bad.

+ Roy Williams' touchdown grab on the Cowboys' opening drive looked like it would be a harbinger of good things for the #1 wideout. Instead, it was his only catch of the game, and eventually Romo seemed to just stop looking for him. He was the intended target on the interception, a too-tall ball that got batted into the air and into the hands of an awaiting safety. His drop on 2nd & 1 on the drive before halftime was inexcusable. Had it hit him any squarer between the 1s on his jersey, he may have gotten the wind knocked out of him. That was the last pass Romo threw to Williams of the game.

+ I'm not saying the kicking problems of this season have been solved, but Shaun Suisham looked good enough in his three kicks on this day. And if we're looking at the glass half full, of his three misses on the year, only one of them -- the 23-yarder that could have propelled the Redskins over the Saints -- was truly unforgivable. One of his two misses against the Cowboys in Dallas was beyond 50 yards, and the other came after about an 8-minute delay as refs tried to get a call correct in an official review inside of two minutes. Talk about icing a kicker!

+ Dallas was clearly trying to protect its new kicker from having to attempt any potentially confidence-killing kicks from long range in going for a few 4th downs. And while I don't mind being aggressive on 4th and short, perhaps something other than Marion Barber diving a yard shy of the marker would be better suited for moving the chains. Those plays won't come back to hurt you against the Redskins, but the same can't be said for the Eagles, Packers or any other playoff-caliber team.

+ The Cowboys defense did a tremendous job in never allowing the Redskins offense to gain any momentum. At all. In fact, after the 'Skins opening drive ended with a Terence Newman interception, Washington punted in each of its next eight drives. Seriously, eight straight punts. As much as I'd love to give the defense tons of credit, Washington was just bad. Really, really bad. Until their final drive of the game, the Redskins didn't move more than 38 yards in a given drive.

+ Is the spark that was missing in the defense in 2008 Keith Brooking or what? The difference he is making is obvious on the field and not as obvious in his attitude that permeates the locker room. Seeing him get the defensive unit fired up before the game is something the Cowboys defense didn't have last season or in previous years. Yes, they have always been talented on that side of the ball, but DeMarcus Ware leads more by example. Brooking in the vocal compliment who can back up his words with his play.

Here's a look at the NFC standings as of Sunday Night. The Vikings have yet to play the Bears on Monday. (View full NFL standings)
1New Orleans Saints13-2
2Minnesota Vikings11-3
3Philadelphia Eagles11-4
4Arizona Cardinals10-5
5Green Bay Packers10-5
6Dallas Cowboys10-5

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