Cowboys and Lions at a crossroads, Week 16 musings and Week 17 playoff scenarios

So here we are, again, as the sun dawns on another NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys are faced with a winner take all situation for the NFC East crown next Sunday as they matchup against the Eagles in Dallas.

If this script sounds familiar it’s because the Cowboys have faced this exact same situation in the two previous seasons (2012 against the Redskins and 2011 against those same Eagles). Dallas will try to avoid going 0-3 in the NFL’s version of the play-in-game, as they have visions of making their first playoff appearance since 2009 when they won the NFC East. In their past eight week 17 matchups, they are 1-7, further adding to the notion that they are the premier ‘choke artists’ of the last decade.

Despite virtually giving the game away last week against the Packers, this time Tony Romo was very good during the Cowboys two-minute drive against the Redskins, finding DeMarco Murray for the go-ahead touchdown pass. Dallas realized that balance was needed and they kept running with their thoroughbred running back, DeMarco Murray (22 carries, 96 yards and a touchdown), even when they were down by two scores.

Aside from Brandon Carr getting smoked by Pierre Garçon throughout the contest and the Cowboys being bamboozled when the Redskins lined up with four receivers on one side, Dallas played their best defensive game of the month and fought back from a 14-23 deficit as their playoff hopes were almost euthanized by the team that did the same in the final game of the 2012 season.

With the news that their starting quarterback may have a herniated disc, getting to the playoffs without Tony Romo, will be a tough task, regardless of what the perception is of him. Dallas should game plan to run the football more than 20 times with Murray to ensure they keep the high-tempo Eagles offense off the field next Sunday night. Murray has surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau, despite missing two games with a knee sprain and dealing with an offensive coordinator who fancies the passing attack more than the run.

Knowing Garrett though and the way the Cowboys abandon the run every game after they show dominance with it, it’ll be ‘fear the beard’ with Kyle Orton having free rein on the offense.

Trouble in Motown

The Lions, were not as lucky as Dallas with regards to their do or die situation. What looked like a promising start to the season, with the Lions boasting a version of the triplets that would make the circa mid-90’s Cowboys blush, finished like it always does for the Lions: Losing five of their last six contests ensuring that four of their last five seasons have been devoid of postseason play, essentially continuing the futility of the Lions to be perennial contenders.

As I watched my Giants win a game they had no business competing in–especially considering they had nothing to play for, a bevy of injuries and continued terrible play from Eli Manning–I saw a Lions teams that, very similarly to the Cowboys, has no will to finish games. Undisciplined play and taking bad penalties  (a reflection of coach Jim Schwartz) have been the modus operandi of a team that seems to get such a style of play from their head coach. The biggest culprit of undisciplined play would be Matthew Stafford, who may be the most frustrating player to watch.  The Lions were 29th in the league in turnover ratio and were only second to the Giants in overall turnovers this season. Stafford had 15 in his last 8 games.

Similarly to Brett Favre, Stafford is the type of player who possesses tremendous physical tools. Like the former Packer, Stafford relies too much on his arm strength and completely disregards the fundamentals of the position: not throwing off your back foot, being consistent with your arm motion (the penchant for sidearm throws makes no sense to me) and not throwing the football into double coverage.

Stafford was also the same player who called off a players-only meeting–one that Reggie Bush wanted to orchestrate during a two-game losing street in November. Remember, Bush is one of the few players on the team with over two seasons of playoff experience and the only one with a Super Bowl ring. Would it not have made sense to mobilize and get the leaders of the team together to ensure that players are on the same page?

Then you have a receiving corps that can get open, but leads the leagues in drops. Calvin Johnson was absolutely woeful last week against the Ravens and dropped four balls that a player, who is considered the best at his position, should corral each time. Today, he couldn’t get open for much of the game and none of their other receivers, such as Burleson, Pettigrew or Kris Durham could beat coverage either.

The pick six by Will Allen should not have happened and while blame should go to Scott Linehan for not calling a run play on 3rd and long, Stafford must have a better grasp of the situation and avoid monumental mistakes. That was the turning point of the game, which tied the contest and allowed the Giants to creep back and steal the victory.

The point is the Lions and Cowboys are eerily similar in the way they frustrate their supporters by dazzling one week and disappointing the next. It all comes down the leadership and how their respective head coaches deal with adversity, which from my vantage point is very poor. Garrett rarely has a sound game plan and his teams have consistently given up on the run, despite its success. The Cowboys are 11-0 when Murray has 20 carries or more. That is an easy recipe for success that should be used with more frequency. No one likes to provide a silver lining when talking about an injury, but Romo being injured and potentially missing the regular season finale against the Eagles is a mechanism for the Cowboys and Garrett to protect themselves from being overly reliant on the passing game.

Ultimately, both teams are where they are due to poor coaching and a lack of leadership:

Schwartz has no sense of discipline with the Lions and that can be witnesses by their propensity to lead the league in penalties and turnovers.

Garrett, like the Cowboys, is in do or die mode. He still has a chance, albeit slim, to salvage his career in Dallas. Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew will not live to see another season in Motown.

Playoff scenarios

-Four interceptions from your quarterback, playing in Seattle against the best team in the NFC should be a recipe for a loss. Not for Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardianls. A gutsy performance by Carson Palmer and despite his struggles, he made the throw of the game to Michael Floyd who made a spectacular touchdown catch.  Three of the top five defenses in the league are in the NFC West and the Rams are within the top 10. Inconceivable to think that the Cardinals could get 10 or 11 wins and still miss the playoffs. Either way, Arians is a coach of the year candidate and the Cardinals are as hot as any team right now with a pulverizing run defense.

-The Colts will not go anywhere in the playoffs unless they establish a consistent running attack, led by Donald Brown. Thankfully for them, Sunday against the Chiefs, they tallied 135 yards with Brown getting 79 on 10 carries and Trent Richardson only amassing 34. The receiving corps misses Reggie Wayne and the offensive line is not well equipped to withstand a heavy rush and protect Andrew Luck. Thus, T.Y. Hilton’s impact has decreased as he relies heavily on the offensive line, allowing Luck to stand in the pocket while he runs downfield. As boring as Pep Hamilton’s offensive philosophy is, it gives the Colts the best opportunity to advance in the playoffs with receivers who struggle with consistency. The Chiefs and Colts have already clinched playoff positions and will likely face each other in two weeks when the postseason begins.

-The Dolphins had 106 net yards after a colossal collapse against the Bills following a massive win against the Patriots last week. I sang the praises of Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace over the past week, but the offensive line, which surrendered seven sacks, rendered their previous three-game winning streak as virtually useless. Now the Dolphins need to win next week against the Jets, which is no easy task and they would need a loss from the Ravens in week 17 against the Bengals. Oddly enough, if Miami wins and the Chargers win, the Dolphins would be in because the Chargers and Ravens did not face each other this season and the tiebreaker would go to conference record.

The Chargers would need a win and losses from the Dolphins and Ravens to make the playoffs.

The Ravens are depending on losses from the Dolphins or Chargers and if either of those two teams are defeated and the Ravens win, Baltimore would be the second wild card team. You know the Bengals would love nothing more than to knock off their perceived ‘big brother’ in the Ravens by knocking them out of playoff contention.

-For the rest of the AFC North playoff scenarios, the Bengals have already clinched a birth in the postseason, their third straight. The Steelers would need to win next week against the Browns and have the Chargers, Dolphins and Ravens lose their respective games. Although they need the most help, they are the least likely of the four teams to lay an egg and they have the easiest end of the season matchup, as the Browns own a 4-11 record (worst of the opponents of the four remaining AFC teams in contention for the final wild card spot). Ben Roethlisberger still does not get the respect he deserves as one of the best players at his position. Similarly, with regards to Antonio Brown who every week is catching seven passes and making defenders miss either after the catch or as a punt returner. Along with a strong running game from Le’Veon Bell and the likes of Troy Polamalu making key players, the Steelers are a team I would not want to face if squared off against in the postseason.

-In the NFC, the Saints would be in the postseason if they win next week (they can also win the NFC South with a win and Panthers loss). The 49ers closed out Candlestick Park in a dramatic fashion thanks to an 89-yard pick six by Navarro Bowman.  The only way for the Cardinals to make the playoffs would be if the Saints lose against Tampa Bay and the Cardinals can beat San Francisco in week 17. Essentially, the Cardinals could finish 11-5 and not make the playoffs, which would be the first time that an 11-win team would miss the postseason since the 2008 Patriots.

The Packers and Bears will have their own play-in-game as Chicago failed to close out a division title against Philadelphia on Sunday night due to a putrid effort by their defense.

-The Panthers played one of the best games in the last decade. Cam Newton was awful for every part of the first 57 minutes of the game. Boy did he deliver when it counted though.  Cam made the throw of his career to Ted Ginn on the first play of the ensuing drive following the Jimmy Graham touchdown. Newton stuck in the pocket for five steamboats and threw an absolute dart to Ginn on a crossing route. It was the type of play I thought I would never see from Newton, as quarterbacks with his type of ability to escape pressure, would roll out on the first sign of an unclean pocket. Two 14-yard completions to Greg Olsen then Domenik Hixon for the go-ahead touchdown sealed the Saints’ fate. Say what you will of Newton, but he has matured tremendously this season and he deserves a great deal of praise for this Panthers turnaround-where they have won 10 of their last 11 games. They can win the division with a win against the Falcons next week.

Quick Slants

-Ryan Mathews saved his career this season. He was fizzling as a bust running back that had issues with work ethic and could not stay on the field due to injuries. He now has a chance to be a top 10 runner as he finally has shown the durability, vision and athletic skills that made him a first rounder.

-Jay Cutler still has too much tunnel vision towards Brandon Marshall. Contrary to Josh McCown, he also starts out games really inaccurate and erratic.

-Robert Quinn is your defensive player of the year. As good as Earl Thomas has played, Quinn’s dominance has not wavered all season.

-Speaking of the Rams, we say it every year, but they truly have enough talent on defense to be a force for years. Les Snead has drafted a solid core of athletic players. Alec Ogletree was a guy they took a risk on and should get some looks as defensive rookie of the year.

-The Falcons had a valiant effort against the 49ers, but again, they cannot punch it in when they are in goal-to-go type situations. This team lacks the gumption on short yardage scenarios that other physical teams to convert first downs when needed. Say what you will about Harry Douglas needing to make a play, but Matt Ryan simply cannot get it down when trying to knock on the door of scoring go-ahead touchdowns.

-Yes Luke Kuechly is amazing, his 24 tackles were out of this world, but I will remind you again that Lavonte David is a better player as a pass rusher and in coverage where Kuechly struggles in zones. The media needs to at least share the amount of publicity Kuechly gets with David, who is an All-Pro as well.

-I say this about 15 times per season, but Navarro Bowman is the best 49ers middle linebacker. He also cemented his spot as a defensive player of the year candidate. Credit to Trumaine Brock making a terrific play on the ball, that allowed Bowman to score that pick six, as he atoned for the bobbled hands team onside kick recovery.

-The 49ers like the Colts are a better team when they establish the run first. Gore looked fresh and ran for 97 yards, Kaepernick and Hunter added an extra 51 yards as well. Kaepernick’s skills as a passer are not refined enough for him to drop back and throw it 30 to 40 times per game and win.

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