Just two games remain in the regular season and as the calendar flips to 2022, the NFC East Champions now have their eyes set on playoff positioning. This week brings one of the toughest challenges in weeks for the Dallas Cowboys (11-4) as they welcome in the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals (10-5).
Both teams have solidified their spot in the NFC playoffs but have seeding to fight for in the final weeks. Here are five additional storylines for each team heading into Sunday's battle at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
- Arizona, who started 7-0 and looked primed to be one of the top teams in the league, have since struggled to keep pace with the rest of the NFC. They have now lost three-straight games and five of their last eight since their undefeated run. Some of the losses are excusable such as the 24-21 heartbreaker against Green Bay or the 30-23 battle with the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14. However, there have been some disappointing setbacks like the 34-10 blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers and the more inexplicable 30-12 showing against the Detroit Lions.
- They last took the field on Christmas Day against the surging Indianapolis Colts in a 22-16 loss at State Farm Stadium in Arizona. After trailing for the majority of the first half, a 24-yard Kyler Murray touchdown pass to Antoine Wesley put the Cardinals up 13-12 mid-way through the third. However, two long drives and 10 unanswered points from the Colts was too much for Arizona to recover as the Indianapolis defense was too much to overcome in the fourth quarter.
- Because of the recent struggles, Arizona has gone from being what looked to be a lock as champions of the NFC West, to being a game behind the Rams. The Rams can lock up the division title this week with a win over the Ravens and a Cardinals loss to the Cowboys. While Arizona would need to beat Dallas this week and Seattle next week, along with a Rams loss, to win the division thanks to the tiebreakers.
- Much of the blame surrounding the recent losing streak has to do with the overall health of the Arizona roster. DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt are the two biggest names to be dealing with long term injuries as Hopkins (knee) has not played since Week 14. He could be ready to return as soon as the week of the NFC Championship game while Watt (shoulder) has been on IR since November and is also working to be back for playoffs. Some of the other names that have missed time are OT Justin Murray, S James Wiggins, and cornerbacks Robert Alford, Marco Wilson, and Bashaud Breeland.
- Offensively, the Cardinals still have a top ten unit filled with talented options. Kyler Murray leads the way with pieces like Chase Edmonds and James Connor that have split time in the backfield and A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Zach Ertz as pass catchers. Entering Week 17, Arizona currently ranks 8th in total offense and 10th in both passing and rushing despite scoring over 30 points just once in the last six weeks.
- Dallas wrapped up the NFC East crown before their game even kicked off on Sunday evening following Atlanta's win over Detroit and the Raiders victory over the Broncos. To celebrate, they put together their most dominant and complete team wins in years by demolishing the Washington Football Team, 56-14. It was a record-breaking performance that included 42 first half points and touchdowns in all three phases of offense, defense, and special teams for the first time since 2012.
- A massive factor in the dominance was the play of quarterback Dak Prescott who seemingly found his rhythm after struggling since his return from a calf strain in Week 6. Prescott tossed four touchdown passes and became the first quarterback to ever throw scores to a running back, wide receiver, tight end, and offensive lineman in a single regular season game. Additionally, he was able to share the production with four different receivers tallying over 50 yards in the first half along with 322 of his 330 passing yards.
- As encouraging as it was to see the Cowboys offense clicking again, it may not have happened without another swing of momentum thank to the defense. That swing came on the first play from scrimmage for the Washington offense which resulted in a Trevon Diggs interception on a deep ball down the sideline. It marked the 11th interception of the season for Diggs who is now tied with Everson Walls for the franchise's most picks in a single season. He's also the first player in the NFL to have 11 interceptions since Walls did it back in 1981.
- Diggs was not the only player making headlines as a part of Dan Quinn's Dallas defense. Other key contributors like DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons and Jayron Kearse made an impact as all three registered a sack of Taylor Heinicke to help the Cowboys reach a total of five sacks and 20 total pressures. Lawrence continued his impressive return from injury by forcing another turnover in the opening quarter. This time, it was an interception that he returned 40 yards for a touchdown that put Dallas ahead 21-0.
- These two teams are each locked into an NFC playoff spot and have combined for a total of 21 wins in 2021. This is a huge turnaround from the last two times these two teams met. Most recently, Dallas and Arizona squared off in the preseason as two teams uncertain of what the new season could bring coming off 6-10 and 8-8 seasons between the two. This is also the first meeting in the regular season and at AT&T Stadium since Monday Night Football in Week 6 of 2020. Also known as the game directly following the devastating injury to Dak Prescott a week prior. A game where the Andy Dalton led Cowboys never found a groove and were dominated by the full-strength Cardinals, 38-10.