The Dallas Cowboys are closing out another season on shaky ground, even though they’ve already locked up the NFC East title.
The Cowboys visit division rival Philadelphia in the season finale, but will do so without two of their best players. Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith will miss the season finale against the Eagles as both have tested positive for COVID-19.
Both players are expected to be available the following week for the wild-card game in Dallas. But heading into this game with Philly, the Cowboys still technically have a shot (albeit a long one) at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Dallas needs to handle its business first by beating the Eagles Saturday night. Then sit back, watch and hope for losses by the Rams, Cardinals, and Buccaneers. Again, it’s a long shot, but stranger things have indeed happened.
Unfortunately, as lackluster as the Cowboys’ offense has been of late, this team is used to playing without Smith. He’s missed at least three games each year since the 2016 season and was sidelined all but two games last season. They’re much better with Smith on the field, but they’ve learned to adjust to being without him, due to constant injuries. But Parsons and the defense are a different story.
Parsons has become a leader and the most versatile player on the Cowboys’ defense in just one season. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn lines Parsons up all over the place and allows him to use his versatility to affect the game in so many ways. Whether Micah lines up on the defensive line or as a linebacker, he’s going to make his presence felt one way or the other. With Parsons having tested positive for COVID, no one knows how it will affect him moving forward. Some players have been hit pretty hard, while others only mildly. If Parsons returns for the wild-card game and isn’t his usual self , Dallas will be in hot water no matter who they match up with.
Knowing all of this, Week 18 in Philadelphia is a huge game for Dallas, as a loss locks them into the fourth seed, resulting in a rematch with the Arizona Cardinals. The Cowboys just lost to the Cardinals in Week 17, dropping Dallas from No. 2 in the conference to 4. Dallas can still climb up to the third seed, but that scenario is far less likely.
This is a big-play defense in Dallas, and without their biggest playmaker against the Eagles, it could be a long day. The Cowboys don’t possess that all-around shutdown defense (no one really does anymore) as they are prone to giving up big yards. This Cowboys defense makes their living off takeaways, and is tied for first (Indianapolis) with 33 total takeaways, and 25 of those are INTs, which also ranks first in the NFL. Dallas’ turnover differential is +13, ranking them third in the league. Jerry Jones’ Cowboys haven’t been so reliant on the defense in a very long time.
Parsons has been at the head of this turnaround, with Quinn and his defensive scheme. Coaches are tasked with putting players in a position to succeed on the field, and Parsons has taken complete advantage of how Quinn has utilized his talents this year. Most of the significant contributors on this defense were in Dallas last year when they were historically bad. Parsons pretty much had the defensive rookie of the year award locked up in December. There was even talk of him having a chance at winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, as well. But with the year T.J. Watt is having (21.5 sacks) in Pittsburgh, that isn’t likely at this point.
Turnovers are the name of the game in Dallas right now, and if they hope for a long postseason run, they’ll need this trend to continue through January. This season, the Cowboys are just 1-3 when they fail to snag at least one INT in a game. They’re 0-2 when they don’t procure an INT or a fumble. Without Parsons causing confusion and getting after opposing QBs, this might be too much of a hurdle for the ’Boys to overcome.