The last time the Dallas Cowboys won a playoff game was the NFC Wild Card match with Minnesota on December 28, 1996. Since then, the team has played in six playoff games with no success.
In probably one of the toughest games in this playoff drought, Tony Romo was nabbed on the two-yard line by a shoestring tackle following a botched field goal set up. In the press conference following the game, the Big Tuna—clearly deflated—looked like he sniffed something foul. Romo said, "I don't know if I have ever felt this low," while owner Jerry Jones added: "I feel empty."
To help fans move forward and change team playoff history 13 years in the making, the Cowboys must do seven things on Saturday against the Philadelphia Eagles. If they fail to do just one of these, it's over.
1. Punish the Eagles for the Blitz
Whether Romo utilizes a quick snap count, a draw or screen to Marion Barber, a slant to Miles Austin, or a quick shot up the middle to Jason Witten, the Cowboys must find a way to kill the Eagles for each and every blitz.
Otherwise, the risks are out of this world. Romo gets beat up, the line gets jumpy, and large losses mount, making it tough to regain the first down advantage without the throw. The offense loses rhythm, and the defense spends too much time on the field.
Worse yet, just one successful blitz—imagine Romo getting blind-sided while holding the ball out like a loaf of bread—could erase even an awesome 99-yard drive.
A blitz can be a game changer. Dallas must punish Philly every time they bring it. Without fail.
2. Stop the Big DeSean Jackson Play
He’s young. He’s fast. He’s tough. He’s tweeting trash. And he has the ability to make a monstrous, momentum-changing play. During the regular season, DeSean Jackson caught 63 passes for nine touchdowns and a total of 1,167 yards. He averages over 18 yards a catch and ran two punts home for six.
Versus the Cowboys in two regular season games, Jackson has a goose egg for touchdown statisticly and a total of five catches for 76 yards. It’s nothing to brag about, but things could change on a moment’s notice.
Remember Week 17 when Jackson got behind everyone and McNabb overthrew the ball. Don’t expect that to happen in the playoffs.
Jackson’s speed is unmatched, and in fact, a botched big play is the exception to the rule for this player. Jackson has at least 10 plays for over 40 yards and eight touchdowns on 50-plus yard plays. If America’s Team expects to advance in the playoffs, they have to hold this guy down as they have in the first two meetings.
3. Get Good Yardage Out of Early Down Cowboy Runs
The Cowboys earned nearly 75 per cent of their first downs on either first or second down. Maybe it was a long pass. Maybe it was a good run. In any event, the team rests the defense and, for the most part, moves the ball when it’s not looking down the barrel of frequent third-down situations.
When it comes to third and some change, Dallas has about a 40 per cent chance of moving the chains. And, stating the obvious, converting is harder in long situations. Not to mention, the defense has a better idea of what’s coming.
Therefore, it’s critical to keep third down short. The offense has to avoid penalties like the plague and Romo can’t cough up gains by getting sacked in a collapsed pocket. Most importantly, Jason Garrett has to find a way to unleash Marion Barber and Felix Jones on first and second down.
Let Barber steam roll some guys with a few punishing seven-yard gains. Eventually, he’ll open it up. If the run won't work, take a few shots to the seams and then go back to it.
Also, find a way to involve Felix Jones in another 90-yard, one-touchdown performance. If the backs combine for early down gains, short or long, other opportunities will open up and the Eagles won’t be able to contain this team.
4. Push The Eagles Out of Field Goal Range
In basketball, when a player goes cold, it’s common to give up on the jumper and take it to the hole. That way, the player either gets a high percentage shot or goes to the free throw line. After a few freebies from the line, some flow comes back and the player may just hit some clutch threes.
In football, when you get shut out one week, a good coach will want to end the drought as soon as possible by putting some points on the board. The Eagles blanked Week 17, but don’t expect that to continue with the first playoff match.
If the Cowboys stop Philly short of the red zone, expect David Akers to go for three, even if it’s a 50-yard field goal.
This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but allowing a couple early field goals keeps the Eagles in the game. It gives them flow, and Akers is pretty much money in the bank.
He hit 32 of 37 field goals this year. One of the five misses was blocked. The nation saw the other miss on television the other day. That thing had some wicked action—after floating left, it came back right a touch, and then the god that blessed Texas carried it left of the upright. Don’t expect that to happen this week.
The kicker is 8-of-9 from 30-plus yards and 11-of-13 from the 40-plus yards. He’ll even hit a third of what you give him beyond the 50.
Dallas needs to keep this guy away from the goal posts. Three points is about half a touchdown, and one swing of the leg is enough to make the difference in the momentum and conclusion of a game.
5. Help Tony Romo Protect the Ball
Early in the season, when the Cowboys and Giants played, Romo had a pick six and two interceptions that resulted in touchdowns. It was a horrible game. Two games later, the once-formidable Denver defense sacked Romo five times and forced one interception and a fumble.
Had eBay been selling Tony Romo voodoo dolls, sales would have been through the roof.
But Romo’s been doing better these days. In the last two shutout games by the Cowboys, Romo threw an interception in each. Luckily, the defense mitigated that damage and prevented the Redskins and Eagles from scoring.
Similarly, on Saturday, if Romo throws an interception, the Cowboy defense has to equalize it with a defensive stop. It sounds simple, but this has to happen.
Also, the players have to protect Romo’s backside. The guy, for whatever reason, has an internal sensor that doesn’t seem to recognize trouble from the back. If protection requires a couple holds or penalties, fine. 10 yards is better than giving up the ball in good field position. Nothing short of an entire team effort will be required to help Romo protect the ball on Saturday.
6. Pressure Donovan McNabb in the Pocket
Donovan McNabb is by no means infallible. Just this year, the player bobbled the ball 10 times (three times for a loss) and threw 10 interceptions. Moreover, with all his running, he only has two rushing touchdowns.
However, McNabb has thrown for 22 touchdowns. Keep in mind that nine of these went to DeSean Jackson; hence, my second point. If you shut down DeSean Jackson, you shut down half of McNabb, too.
But the thing about this 11-year veteran is he tends to make some plays on the fly. Part of this is his receivers find a way to get open. The other part of this is McNabb can improvise well.
On Saturday, Dallas needs to enclose McNabb with pressure. Philadelphia is clearly better at passing than rushing, so expect McNabb to drop back quite often. When he does, Keith Brooking, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, and DeMarcus Ware have to pound him while in the pocket.
7. Block Out the Wins and the History
To be sure, the Cowboys probably enjoyed winning the NFC East. Congrats, Big D. But McNabb, after the loss to the Cowboys, had it right when he said, "You know, when it comes down to it, if you don't win this game, I don't think too many people are going to remember who won the NFC East."
Not to mention, all this talk about the Eagles goldbricking the last game of the year to save their best stuff for the playoff rematch. If the Cowboys start thinking about that, it's over. Block it out.
The Cowboys not only have to block out the two prior wins against Philadelphia, but they also have to block out at least 13 years of playoff history. Otherwise, when the going gets tough, players get tight and choke and the drought continues for all involved.
It’s easier said than done, but the best of the best find a way to do it. If the Cowboys can do these seven things, we will all witness a new history for America’s Team.