After a disappointing loss in Week 17, the Cowboys must use the season finale as a "get right" game to get back on track. The team needs to clean up a few areas to enter the playoffs ready to play their best football of the season.
Given some time to assess what went wrong against the Cardinals, here are some thoughts and observations on "America's Team"…
Stop the crying
Perhaps Mike McCarthy complained about the officiating in the locker room after the disappointing loss to the Cardinals, but championship teams do not whine and complain about calls. Sure, the Cowboys were on the wrong side of a few close calls but elite teams overcome bad breaks with outstanding effort and execution.
Instead of moaning and groaning about judgment calls, the Cowboys need to do a better job of avoiding the "DBOs" (Don't Beat Ourselves) that lead to losses. The combination of turnovers, penalties, kicking game miscues and big plays allowed led to the Cowboys' demise in a game that was billed as a "statement game" by America's Team.
If the Cowboys are a legitimate title contender, they cannot give their opponents extra possessions, free yardage, and easy scoring opportunities in the postseason. Every possession matters in "win or go home" games and the Cowboys cannot give away games with self-inflicted errors. After seeing how their mistakes cost them a big game against an NFC heavyweight, the Cowboys might have learned a valuable lesson before heading into the playoff.
Who replaces Michael Gallup?
The loss of Michael Gallup did not garner much attention on the national level, but the removal of the dynamic pass catcher with big-play skills will certainly alter how the Cowboys attack opponents in the playoffs. Although the fourth-year pro missed significant time this season, the Cowboys relied on him as the vertical threat to lift the blanket on Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. In addition, Gallup's big-play potential forced opponents to remove a safety out of the box, which created more room for Elliott and Pollard on the ground.
Without Gallup in the lineup, the Cowboys will need Cedrick Wilson to step into the WR3 role on the perimeter. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has shown promise this season with 40 catches, 483 yards, and four scores as a rotational player.
As a crafty route runner and sure-handed pass-catcher, he has come through with some key catches on critical downs. Against the Cardinals, he scored on a deep crossing route near the back of the end zone that showcased his strong hands. And he converted a two-point conversion on a quick out route that revealed the trust Dak Prescott has in Wilson's ability to make plays in the clutch.
Given more opportunities to showcase his skills as a big-play weapon, the Cowboys' offense should not skip a beat with No.1 stepping into a new role.
All-Pros need work, too
Tyron Smith might be a lock to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his playing days are done, but his performance against the Cardinals confirms the practice and game reps heading into the playoffs. After a lengthy layoff due to injury, the veteran looked a little rusty and out of sorts while battling Chandler Jones on the edge.
The Cardinals' marquee pass rusher had Smith on skates with his quickness, athleticism, and wiggle posing problems to a blocker who had not been on the field in weeks. Smith's timing, hand placement and anchor were a little off as he struggled to adjust to the tempo and pace of the game. Although Smith's minor flaws are correctable with more reps and its experience, it was probably a good idea for McCarthy to play the veteran in a regular-season game instead of waiting until the playoffs to re-insert the All-Pro into the lineup.
What's up with the running game?
Despite the Cowboys' explosive potential due to a star-studded lineup on the perimeter, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore cannot forget the running game is this team's bread-and-butter.
The Cowboys are at their best when Elliott and Pollard take turns pummeling opponents on an assortment of runs between the tackles and on the edges. However, they must get enough carries to impact the game. Against the Cardinals, the duo combined for just 25 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Considering the game was close for most of the night, the lack of commitment to the run was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps Moore and McCarthy believed the passing game offered more advantages, but it does not make sense to exclude two of the team's better playmakers from the game plan by ignoring the run. For the Cowboys to maximize their potential as a championship contender, No.20 and No.22 must be a bigger part of the equation and that formula needs to include the running game.
Back to basics on defense
The Cowboys' defensive resurgence this season has been the result of outstanding execution from 11 defenders committed to playing the game the right way. From the frontline playing disciplined football at the point of attack to the linebackers flowing the ball with reckless abandon to the defensive backs keeping the ball in front of the defense by playing with great leverage and technique, the Cowboys become a stingy, turnover-obsessed defense by paying attention to the details.
Against the Cardinals, the defense did not play disciplined football for sixty minutes. The performance was plagued with mistakes and miscues that ultimately cost the Cowboys in the end. The secondary, in particular, allowed too many passes to be completed over the top of the defense. With Kyler Murray finding multiple receivers down the boundary on fades and double moves, the Cardinals were able to produce explosive plays on passes that should have been PBUs or interceptions by disciplined defenders.
While Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown have earned high marks for their play on the island throughout the season, the duo has given up some deep ball and that is one of the quickest ways to lose a game in the postseason. Despite their ability to create turnovers, the secondary must eliminate the big plays to give the Cowboys the best chance of winning against the high-powered offenses that fill out the NFC bracket.