We’re here, football fans. Four and a half months of exhilaration and heartbreak, expectation and disappointment, and fist-pumping celebration and hair-pulling frustration have all led to this grand gridiron moment. In truth, it is the culmination of a full year’s worth of grinding work. From the draft to the offseason program, from training camp to the preseason, and then 17 whole games (still stupid) spread over 18 grueling weeks, the NFL playoffs are finally upon us!
Despite backing their way in after a shockingly terrible 26-6 public shaming in Washington on Sunday, your Dallas Cowboys have officially punched their postseason ticket. Though they managed to secure 12 wins for the second year in a row (a feat not seen in these parts since 1995!), by dint of the fact that an exceedingly irritating Philadelphia Eagles team — led by an MVP lock quarterback in Jalen Hurts — rolled to a 14-3 record, the ’Boys will enter the postseason as a wildcard. They will therefore have to travel to the hallowed lands of glittering meth and leathery suntans in sunny Tampa Bay to take on the vampiric Tom Brady and the juggernaut 8-9 Buccaneers for Super Wildcard Weekend™ on, um, Monday night? (You can’t tell me that’s not some bone being tossed to Buck and Troy after leaving Fox.)
With the Eagles claiming the division, it keeps a nearly two decades-long tradition in the NFC East going strong, that of a different team finishing first every year. There have been no repeat division champs in 18 consecutive seasons running. Hell, in Dallas’ case, it makes just their first consecutive playoff appearance since we were all crying along to Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah” way back in 2007.
This week before the real “big game” is normally a time buzzing with anticipation. However, with the way the last several games have gone for Dallas — really going all the way back to Thanksgiving against the Giants — my excitement for the start of the postseason has dropped considerably from its usual Christmas Eve-as-a-7-year-old level to the lukewarm, might-as-well-get-this-over-with anxiety of a routine colonoscopy. The Cowboys seem flat and in disarray, a horrifying problem to have come about heading into the playoffs. What seemed like a team primed for a long postseason run at midseason — unstoppable offense, marauding, shut-down defense, field-flipping special teams — has suddenly been exposed over the last six weeks. Like the villain in a Scooby Doo episode, the mask of the once-terrifying monster has been pulled away to reveal the same ol’ harmless, ne’er-do-well Cowboys.
It has been since hanging a 50-burger on the Colts a month ago that Dallas has had a decisive win. Even that one was uncomfortable until the offensive explosion in the third quarter. Sure, with the exception of the game they bungled away to the Jags and the absolute self-caning against Washington on Sunday, they’d won most of those games. But did you ever feel comfortable until the time expired watching any of those wins? More troubling is that, discounting Trevor Lawrence, the quality of opposing quarterbacks who have given this heralded Dan Quinn defense fits in recent weeks is loathsome. You barely pulled out W’s against the terrible twosome of Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel at home against Houston? Then follow that with similar struggles against the upside-down swagger:talent ratio-possessing Gardner Minshew. And then give plenty of highlight tape to two late-round third-string QBs making their first career starts in Josh Dobbs for Tennessee and Sam Howell for Washington, the latter of whom threw a 15-yard TD against you on his first NFL pass? I don’t think you can overestimate just how significant the loss of cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have been on this defense. Without a backfield that can cover, opposing QBs can get the ball out quick, and Dallas’ usual top-tier pass rush is rendered useless. Opposing offenses can suddenly drive down the field on the Cowboys.
Couple the recent defensive woes with a quarterback in Dak Prescott who has suddenly decided to try his best Jameis Winston impression, and it feels strongly like another patented Cowboys one-and-done playoffs coming. Look, there’s no bigger Dak apologist than me. I have ended friendships over my defense of No. 4, but something is way off with the seventh-year QB. At one time, he was among the quarterbacks most careful with the ball. He now leads the league in interceptions with 15. That, despite missing five whole games to injury earlier in the year. That staggering number of INTs includes four pick-sixes, three in just the last four games.
This team is falling apart at the exact wrong time. As I have consistently said, despite his recent inconsistency, Prescott has a better chance of being responsible for any Cowboys postseason success than he does of being its demise. It would be just like him to go into Tampa and lead Dallas to the victory by slinging it all over the field, essentially the exact opposite of the last time the ’Boys played there. You know, Week 1, when Dak had the worst game of his career? Well, until this past Sunday that is.
Even if they win, my once stalwart confidence is too shaken to think they make it out of the divisional round. I had them as NFC favorites just two months ago. Now, I can sense Lucy Van Pelt’s elusive football being placed on the ground before me, and I have the sinking suspicion that, when the final whistle blows, I’m going to end up on my back in the dirt.