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Nick at Nite

Nick at Nite: What could go right? What could go wrong?


FRISCO, Texas — Another year, and another playoff run is impending for the Dallas Cowboys. Fortunately for those in the building, this has become the norm under head coach Mike McCarthy, but the success in the postseason has yet to come to fruition.

Heading into the playoffs this time around, the setup couldn't be any better for the Cowboys to make their deepest postseason run since 1995. They are guaranteed at least two home playoff games in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds, they get to avoid the San Francisco 49ers until a potential NFC Championship Game, and they get to duck the hottest team in the NFC in the Los Angeles Rams until a potential conference championship as well.

It's all aligned for the Cowboys to make a deep run and contend for not only an NFC title but also a Super Bowl. However, certain things still stand in their way.

Let's dive into the positive. What could go right for the Cowboys and what could help them get to that game in Las Vegas a month from now?

I think the obvious starts with the most reliable and consistent thing that a Cowboys team has had in some time: the connection between Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb.

It's already been solidified as the best quarterback-to-receiver connection in franchise history with Lamb's multiple franchise records, and it has the potential to be a postseason staple in 2023.

"We got 4 and 88, that's enough hope for me," safety Jayron Kearse said on Monday. "That's the best quarterback-receiver duo in the league."

Next, things were looking rough on the defensive side of the ball in the loss to Buffalo. In the absence of Johnathan Hankins, the Cowboys defense gave up more rushing yards in that game than they had in any game since 2013 and were run out of Orchard Park with a loss reminiscent of the one they took in Santa Clara earlier in the season.

Now, Hankins is back healthy and the defense is coming off a stretch that has seen them limit opponents to just 88 rushing yards per game and 17 points per game in three games. The running game problems seem to be fixed up the middle with the addition of Hankins back into the lineup and the secondary remains firm.

The last point I will touch on as it pertains specifically to the Green Bay game, the Cowboys have a great opportunity to use one thing to their advantage to win this game – and no, this time it is actually not the fact that they're playing at AT&T Stadium.

Winning the time of possession battle has been critical in determining the outcome of games this season with the Cowboys going 8-2 when winning that stat category. When possessing the ball for more than 35 minutes, that number is a pure 6-0.

The Packers defense is adept at not allowing explosive pass plays – sitting in the top ten of 20-plus yard pass plays allowed this season – and it's a result of their zone shell defense looks that keep everything underneath and force opposing offenses to work their pass game in the short-to-intermediate game. With as fast as Dak Prescott and this offense likes to get the ball out, that works perfectly. That will only help sustain long drives and take big chunks off the clock as a result.

On top of that, the Packers defense is one of the worst in the NFL in allowing explosive run plays – rushing gains of 10 or more yards. With the way the running game behind Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle has stacked confidence over the last few weeks, it might be perfect timing for a rushing explosion at AT&T Stadium to both help power the offense and put another stake into claiming that time of possession battle.

Defensively, the Cowboys will run into a first-year starter in Jordan Love that has exceeded expectations by all accounts by sitting seventh in passing yards and second in passing touchdowns at season's end. His weapons? How about the top six leading receivers for the Packers all being rookies or second-year players?

It's impressive what Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur has been able to do with the inexperience offensively this season, and it has the Packers still alive in the second week of January.

One critical point that will be key for the Cowboys defense is to get to Jordan Love. Averaging just 1.8 sacks allowed per game in 2023, the Packers sit in the top three of the NFL in terms of keeping their quarterback clean, and it has only improved as the season has gone on with only two sacks allowed in their final three games.

However, this will be one of those rare occasions that the Cowboys defense has more experience in these types of games and atmospheres than the opposing side.

As for the negative, certain crutches still linger around the team and weaknesses still exist with a couple of the most glaring ones being penalties and offensive production in the middle portion of the game.

The Cowboys enter the playoffs as the second-highest penalized team in all of the NFL and the highest of all playoff teams. Those infractions have come in the form of discipline fouls (offsides, false starts, roughing the passer/kicker, etc.) and in the form of gameplay physicality (facemasks, holding, etc.). It seems as though when it rains yellow, it pours yellow for the Cowboys – although the final stretch of the season could give some confidence for what's ahead (4.3 penalties per game in final three games).

While the Cowboys finished the season as the second-most productive team in the second quarter (9.8 points per game), that number was severely impacted in the final three games by having the league's fourth-worst total in that stretch. In the third quarter out of the halftime break, Dallas has suffered problems all season and finished the year 22nd in points scored in the third frame. Who was in first place in that category? None other than Jordan Love's bunch.

If the Cowboys can build a time of possession lead in the first half, control the game for at least 35 minutes total and come out of the break firing, there's no reason why they shouldn't be right back at home a week from Sunday playing for a Divisional Round win.

But then again, there's no reason why this team shouldn't be sitting in the NFC Championship Game two weeks from now.

A lot of football sits in front of us, and I truly think the words a lotare valid for what's ahead in January for the Dallas Cowboys.

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