FRISCO, Texas — Even after an ugly 31-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, everything still stands in front of the Dallas Cowboys and what they want to accomplish in 2023.
The weekend's results saw Dallas clinch its third consecutive playoff berth while also seeing the **door remain open for a divisional title** after the Eagles' loss to the Seahawks.
Now, I know what you're thinking. After the egg that the Cowboys laid on Sunday in Buffalo, how can there be any confidence in a rebound in Miami? Valid point, but it's an opportunity for Dallas to wipe away three major concerns with a win at Hard Rock Stadium.
Let's look at it.
Number one, playing on the road. Goodness, when can this team put together a road performance – just one – that is similar to what its done at home all year? Aside from the season-opening win in New York, there isn't a road performance that I would put above any seven of the home wins in terms of playing a complete game and not leaving any meat on the bone.
"It's a gap, and that's part of my message," head coach Mike McCarthy said postgame. "We play so well at home. There's just too big of a gap on our road games. We're conscious of it, and we've got a long flight home to think about it, and to talk about it. We've got to move on to Miami in the morning, and get this one corrected but, yes, we've gotta be better."
A win against a 10-4 Miami team that looks like an AFC contender in their own home stadium would be huge in taking the first step towards erasing the narrative around not being able to play on the road. Because up to this point, that narrative has two strong legs to stand on. It could serve as a big confidence booster knowing that the next time this team goes on the road to face a solid opponent, it will be in January in the playoffs.
Number two, limiting a powerful rushing attack. We saw Dallas have its worst run defense performance since 2012 when the Cowboys defense allowed 266 yards including 179 from James Cook alone. The absence of Johnathan Hankins was felt in a big way, but Cook's production also saw him break contain on multiple occasions and get around the edges for massive gains.
This week, that challenge only stiffens with Miami bringing the two-headed running back monster of Raheem Mostert and Devon Achane to the field to power the league's fourth-best rushing offense. It will take a "Herculean effort" – in the words of Jerry Jones – if Hankins cannot return to limit the versatile and dangerous rushing attack that the Dolphins can bring to the table.
Now if the Cowboys can somehow limit that attack even without Hankins, confidence in this team being able to handle the likes of Christian McCaffrey or David Montgomery/Jahmyr Gibbs in the playoffs becomes just a bit higher when Hankins is back in the fold.
It was a once-in-a-decade type performance in Buffalo from a run defense perspective. It will take another one – this time positive – to reinstill the notion that this team has one of the league's elite defenses that can carry a team through the playoffs.
Number three, dealing with speed. When the schedule dropped, it was very clear that the Miami game would give the Dallas defense a ton of fits with the multitude of speed weapons the Dolphins have.
NFL's Next Gen Stats has a tool that tracks on-field speed, and the highest on-field, in-play speeds get tracked throughout the season. Of the top ten fastest on-field speeds this year, the Dolphins have six of them from three different players: Tyreek Hill, Devon Achane and Raheem Mostert. That fails to include Jaylen Waddle and the team's lead returner Braxton Berrios who each have speed that could make them the fastest players on roughly half of all NFL teams.
The Dallas defense has had major struggles with speed all season. The fastest on-field ball-carrier all season came on DK Metcalf's 73-yard touchdown reception against the Cowboys in week 13 when he reached a top speed of 22.23 mph. You can also think back to when Rondale Moore had his way in week three, Keenan Allen finding consistent separation in week six, Devonta Smith getting loose for a touchdown in week nine and Curtis Samuel posting a 100-yard day in week 12.
The list is extensive, yet the Cowboys have not seen one individual speed weapon that can stack up with the third or fourth-fastest weapon that the Dolphins have. A win in that game that sees the defense keep Tyreek Hill underneath and Raheem Mostert and Devon Achane away from big running lanes would be a ginormous step in the right direction in that area.
Of course, there is always the possibility that none of these major concerns get fixed in time to take the field on Christmas Eve. It's tough to envision after what happened in Buffalo in all three areas. But if you ask anyone on the team and you take a look at what the Cowboys have done under Mike McCarthy following a loss, there might be an optimistic outlook on just what might go down on Sunday evening in South Beach.
"It's gonna have to be a mentality thing," Micah Parsons said postgame. "Everyone is gonna have to be better. We're gonna have to get healthy and get ready, because next week [against Miami] is gonna be a big one."