Blowout SNF Win Shows Why Cowboys Belong With Packers, Bucs at Top of NFC

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 27, 2021

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 26: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after rushing for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Washington Football Team at AT&T Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

A confluence of factors is necessary for a squad to be considered a realistic Super Bowl contender. Talent, coaching, a relatively healthy lineup or quality depth and the ability to improve throughout a long campaign while catching a little lightning in the bottle are all necessary to raise the Lombardi Trophy. 

In the evolving NFC, two franchises lord over the rest for different reasons. The Green Bay Packers own the league's best record at 12-3, with another MVP trophy seemingly destined to bear Aaron Rodgers' name for the fourth time. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, are the reigning Super Bowl champs. They're one of the league's most talented units on both sides of the ball, and Tom Brady continues to play at a level previously unseen from a position player in his mid-40s. 

Others contenders are in the mix, particularly the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals. However, the Dallas Cowboys may be the team peaking at the right time if Sunday's 56-14 beatdown of the Washington Football Team is any indication. 

The reports of Dallas' offensive demise were greatly exaggerated, of course. 

On paper, the Cowboys feature one of the league's deepest and most talented offensive units with Dak Prescott behind center, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard at running back, four highly capable wide receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, tight end Dalton Schultz putting together the best season of his career and an always talented front five with Tyron Smith (when healthy) and Zack Martin leading the way. 

The group didn't play particularly well in recent weeks—Dallas made mental mistakes, turned over the ball, didn't run on optimal efficiency and averaged 60.6 fewer yards per game than its season average during the last three games. 

"I think this is the right time for us to turn it on," Prescott admitted before last week's contest, per The Athletic's Jon Machota. "I had that talk with the skill position (players) in the signal-caller's meeting. We'd much rather be going through what we're going through in this time that we did than two weeks from now. Now that we've addressed it, we've held ourselves accountable for it, we can move forward and peak at the right time heading into the playoffs."

It may have taken a week before the Cowboys fully turned it on, but, boy howdy, did they against Washington. 

The second half isn't even worth mentioning because the game was over before the intermission. The Cowboys tied a team record by scoring 42 points during the first two quarters. Prescott completed 77.1 percent of his passes for 320 yards and four scores going into the break.

Washington didn't have any answers, and its pitiful on-field performance extended to the sideline where two of the team's talented defensive linemen, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, were caught fighting on-camera. 

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Former Alabama and current WFT teammates Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne: https://t.co/N6wm6KlJ03

Trying to defend the Dallas offense can be frustrating for any opponent. They have players at every level who can take over the game. Even when the group wasn't fully clicking, the Cowboys continued to win. Three straight victories came before Sunday's blowout. 

Ironically, Dallas didn't even have much to play for Sunday. Jerry Jones' squad already clinched the NFC East before their contest began, thanks to other outcomes around the league. Prescott and Co. could have glided through Sunday's meeting with a division rival. Instead, the Cowboys put the pedal to the metal and finally realized their full potential. 

"I didn't discuss it with the team," head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about winning a division title. " … To me, it was irrelevant. We needed to go out and perform tonight, and we did that."

But the offense's reemergence as a dominant unit is only half the story. The Cowboys defense is now something to be feared, too. Dallas still allows yardage—only 29.5 fewer yards per game compared to last season when entering Sunday's contest—but that side of the ball also has playmakers at all three levels. The unit is thriving in Dan Quinn's defensive scheme. 

Micah Parsons' emergence as the inevitable NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and possible NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the obvious answer when discussing the difference between the unit's current performance compared to last year. 

To be fair, Parsons is exceptional in every way. He's the first rookie in the last 25 years to record 75 or more tackles and 10 or more sacks. Currently, his 13 sacks are tied for fifth alongside the Cincinnati Bengals' Trey Hendrickson.

What makes Parsons special is he's not a full-time edge-defender like those who lead the league in the category. The rookie can be moved all over the front seven to take advantage of an opponent's weaknesses. Even when he doesn't rush the passer, the threat of him doing so changes an offense's approach. His impact can be felt on every down. But he's not the only reason behind Dallas' success. 

"It ain't about one player when you come play the Dallas Cowboys," defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence told reporters last week. "You got to play all 11 of us, and if you think you're just going to single out one player, then you're wrong."

Lawrence is a great example. He returned to the team at the start of December after being on injured reserve with a broken bone in his foot. Lawrence's presence allowed Parsons to be used all over the field because the Cowboys' highest-paid defender can consistently win one-on-one matches as an edge-rusher. Meanwhile, Randy Gregory is playing as well as he ever has on the opposite side. His six sacks already tied a career-high with two regular-season games left to play. 

At the second level, Keanu Neal's transition from safety to linebacker has been seamless. 

The secondary is balling as well. Jayron Kearse is yet another valuable piece due to his versatility. The one-time Detroit Lions castoff, whom the Cowboys eventually plucked off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad, leads the team in tackles while simultaneously serving as one of the squad's primary slot defenders. 

Trevon Diggs is going to his first Pro Bowl, as he's the league's premier ball-hawk with 11 interceptions. The cornerback snagged another one during Washington's first offensive series when his eyes never came off quarterback Taylor Heinicke while running stride-for-stride with Terry McLaurin deep down the field. Those 11 interceptions are tied for the most in Cowboys history and the most by any defender since 1981. 


TREVON DIGGS' ELEVENTH INTERCEPTION. #DallasCowboys 📺: #WASvsDAL on NBC 📱: https://t.co/RVn6kdfzlm https://t.co/apArPdSN5T

For the most part, the Cowboys are healthy. Aside from left tackle Tyron Smith nursing an ankle injury, all of Dallas' big-time performers are in the lineup. That's all a team can ask for during the holiday season. And Smith could return by the postseason, if not sooner.

Comparatively, the Buccaneers have been blasted by injuries. Wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Lavonte David are both on injured reserve. Wide receiver Mike Evans, edge-defender Jason Pierre-Paul and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. didn't play this weekend because of various injuries.

A year ago, the Buccaneers went on a run post-bye week that they rode all the way to the championship. They're not the same well-oiled machine this season with a couple of losses since this year's bye, including to Washington.

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

The Rams found a way to beat the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, but quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a few ugly interceptions. The team experienced a three-game losing streak earlier, and better competition will make it pay when those mistakes are made. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are trending in the wrong direction with three straight losses. 

With Sunday's victory, Dallas already owns the NFC's No. 2 seed thanks to an impressive 9-1 conference record. The Cowboys can't let up, either. Arizona is next on the docket and could gain an advantage with a head-to-head victory. The Philadelphia Eagles aren't a pushover in Week 18 as they currently sit in the seventh slot. The No. 1 seed remains in play, too, with the Packers facing the Vikings and Lions over the next two weeks. Green Bay will be favored in both, but crazier things have already happened this season. 

Until then, the Packers are the NFC team to beat, with Rodgers leading the way. But the Cowboys have all the necessary ingredients to eventually usurp the title as the NFC's best and represent the conference in the league's championship game. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.