Mick Shots: The Most Plausible Path To East Title

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FRISCO, Texas – Now is the time of year we worry about clinching.

About seeds.

About tiebreakers.

Especially in this turn-around season for the Cowboys, sitting here going into Sunday's game against the New York Giants leading the NFC East at 9-4 by three games with four left to play.

Short of a Cowboys win Sunday and Washington and Philadelphia improbably tying to clinch the NFC East title, the more likely route to their first division title since 2018 without getting into records against common opponents or strength of victory tiebreakers or depending on another division foe's loss would be to just win two games. Just two of the final four, but preferably more than that to

streak into the playoffs.

That would give the Cowboys 11 wins. And no matter who they beat to get those two wins, even if Washington or Philadelphia win out, at their current 6-7 the best they can do is finish with 10 wins. Plus, not only do the Cowboys play both one more time, WFT and the Eagles meet two more times in three weeks, starting Sunday in Philadelphia. And so, there are two more losses right there.

So, a combined two wins playing the Giants, WFT, the Cardinals and Eagles, and the division title comes back to Dallas.

But if we want to get into tiebreakers down the line, if the Cowboys beat the Giants and Philly defeats Washington, then the NFL has figured out through a complicated strength-of-victory tiebreaker that any tie the Cowboys might have with Philly at 10-7 the Cowboys would eventually win.

So not only watching the Cowboys-Giants, but also scoreboard watching Washington vs. Philly.

As for seeding purposes for the playoffs, currently the Cowboys rank fourth in the NFC behind Green Bay 10-3, Tampa Bay 10-3 and Arizona 10-3. Obviously, the Cowboys lose any tiebreaker involving the Bucs, having lost the opener to them and still having to play the Cardinals.

But, depending on what the Cowboys do down the stretch, currently their 7-1 NFC record is the best in the conference, with Green Bay 8-2 and Arizona and Tampa Bay 6-3.

While the first seed earns a first-round bye, there is nothing wrong with winning enough games for the second seed, meaning you would play the wild-card team in the first round with the second-worst record. Because the fourth-seeded division winner likely earns the right to play the Rams (9-4) in the first round, unless they overtake the Cardinals, then it would be Arizona twice in three weeks for the Cowboys.

Meaning, the Cowboys must take their best shots in these final four. No coasting. Nor load management.

  • COVID Benefit: Hard to fathom this, right, but the Cowboys have really benefited from the new injured reserve-returns rules the NFL instituted during the 2020 season to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 devastating a team's roster. Remember, the previous IR rules stipulated a team could only return two guys off IR after they missed a minimum of eight games. But last year's rule change that carried over to this year allows teams to bring back an unlimited number of IR players after missing just three games as long as they were on the initial 53-man roster after Sept. 1 for at least 24 hours. That meant the Cowboys were able to bring back the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup, Kelvin Joseph, Francis Bernard, Sean McKeon and Malik Turner off IR during this season. Plus, they still can bring back when ready Blake Jarwin, Donovan Wilson and Noah Brown. Said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, "I don't know that I've been with a team with guys coming back at this time." But on second thought, he continued, saying, "Having the advantage of the IR rules having changed I think is a big factor where we've all covered the NFL for a number of years now, where it was one player, two players and you fight it out. So the rules of the game, and how the front office and Mike [McCarthy] and all the guys have navigated that, that's really a big, big factor in this to have guys come back, and I think it's good for the league." Guarantee you nobody has patted COVID on the back like that, for sure.
  • Crazy Zone: The Cowboys offense certainly has been struggling putting up points over the past four games, the offense scoring no more than 20 points in three of the past four games while going 2-2. But this last game was quite strange. The Cowboys moved the ball well enough to create five legit possessions in the red zone. Problem was, they only scored one touchdown, kicking four field goals, never a recipe for success. "Kind of got stuck down there in the red zone. Can drive you crazy. Drives me crazy when we get stuck in there a little bit," offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said the day after. "I can drive myself crazy all day here overthinking these games and what not, but felt like we started the game with a nice little drive, got three instead of seven." Here is the reason why for "getting stuck." First time from the Washington 20-yard line a run for zero yards and a sack for zero yards. Field goal. Next time a touchdown despite a 5-yard penalty, Dak Prescott hitting Amari Cooper from 7 yards out on third-and-5. Next time from the 19, two incompletions from Dak under pressure. Field goal. Next time, first-and10 at the 11, a sack and a drop. Field goal. Next time from first-and-10 at the 15-yard line, a second-down incompletion on a ball knocked out of Dalton Schultz's hands and just a 2-yard run, though a pass interference penalty on CeeDee Lamb would have nullified a plus play. Field goal. Yeah, crazy.
  • Line Juggling: The Cowboy knows they will be without starting left tackle Tyron Smith (foot) for Sunday's game, and McCarthy has said the alternatives will be what they've been doing, either Terence Steele or Ty Nsekhe. But would stand to reason since Steele started the previous three games Smith missed that he would take over again. And after listening to Cowboys COO Stephen Jones on Sunday, sounds as if the Cowboys will at least consider re-inserting Connor Williams into his starting left guard spot that Connor McGovern had taken over in the past four games.
  • Shorter Shots: The Giants will be without starting quarterback Daniel Jones (neck), and also without offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the Giants sacrificing the former Cowboys head coach for lack of production from a talent-challenged offense that certainly replacement Freddie Kitchens hasn't turned around … Making matters worse, the Giants will be without wide receivers Kadarius Toney and John Ross for COVID reasons and not practicing during Wednesday's walk-through workout were starters running back Saquon Barkley, offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, cornerback Aaron Robinson, kicker Graham Gano, cornerback Adoree' Jackson and strong safety Xavier McKinney … The Giants come in at 4-9, securing their fifth straight losing season … Oh, and the Cowboys have defeated the Giants in eight of the last nine games, including a 44-20 beating earlier this season . . . When it comes to the five teams still vying for an NFC division title, the Cowboys and Rams have the toughest route, their strength of schedule in the remaining four games at an even .500. Then comes Green Bay and Arizona at .433 and Tampa Bay at .365.

So, with the Cowboys offense struggling some compared to where they were early in the season when averaging 32 points a game while gong 6-1 – they have averaged a mere 16.1 in three of the past four games, if not counting defensive returns for touchdowns in each of the past two games – what say you Mike McCarthy of this downturn.

"I would say the common denominator would be about the run game," he said. "Every successful quarterback has the foundation of a run game and a solid pocket, so I think with that we have to stay committed to the run and making sure we're giving our perimeter players a clean look on the outside.

"So getting back to basics, but not overreact schematically because we've been aggressive with the scheme, and I'm not going to hold Kellen back there. We still want to be aggressive. We're playing against a defense that plays a lot of scheme, they play every front in football, so we've got to combat that, too. The mistake, and I've been a part of it in the past, you can pull back too much, and you get out there and feel like you don't have enough ammo on Sunday."

So in other words, keep taking your shots, thank you very much.

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