Believe it or not, there’s still hope for the Dallas Cowboys. As unlikely as it seems, 4-9 Dallas remains in contention for the NFC East crown and the home playoff game that goes along with it. If it feels like the organization has had nine lives this season, it’s because no one inside the division has put the Cowboys out of their misery yet.
The Cowboys did their part to stay on the unlikely path to divisional glory with a 30-7 win in Cincinnati in Week 14, but they need to continue winning to keep their minuscule dreams alive.
With that in mind, now comes a clash against their rivals of yesteryear, the San Francisco 49ers. If the Cowboys want to beat the 5-8 Niners and remain on their quest to make the playoffs, they’ll need to learn these lessons from their victory over the Bengals:
It seems so simple. Take the ball away more than your opponent and you win games. Perhaps no team knows that better than the Cowboys in 2020 and even though it’s not a literal guarantee that you’ll win the game, Dallas found out last Sunday that it’s much easier to win when you create takeaways and score points off of those mistakes.
The Cowboys cashed in with 17 points off turnovers against the Bengals. As an example of the impact those points had, Dallas would have four more wins on the season if they added 17 points to their score. Getting turnovers – while holding onto the ball themselves – against the 49ers will increase the odds of winning the game.
Slow the running game
Coming into the game against the Bengals, the Cowboys were the worst team in the league at stopping the run. The defense wasn’t perfect in Cincinnati – they did allow over 100 yards rushing (101) – but it was well below the 150+ they have been surrendering throughout the season.
Some of the game script helped Dallas in that area, as the Bengals were playing from behind pretty much from the get-go, but performing better at limiting the rushing yards played a part in helping the Cowboys secure their fourth win and stick around in the playoff race.
They’ll face a tougher task in Week 15 against the 49ers as San Francisco is more middle of the pack on the ground (18th in the league with 109.7 yards per game) than Cincinnati was (29th with 92.3 yards per game). Sunday will serve as a good matchup to see if Dallas has figured out how to plug the holes in their run defense.
Be special on Special Teams
The Cowboys have struggled on special teams for years now and that has bled into the 2020 season with issues in a number of games this year. However, against the Bengals, the much-maligned unit had a great showing.
Kick returner Tony Pollard had a 60-yard return to set up a field goal to start the second half and Greg Zuerlein made all three of his kicks, including a 55-yarder, to erase the miserable performance he experienced earlier this month in Baltimore.
Also, punter Hunter Niswander pinned the Bengals inside the 15-yard line on one of his punts, an area that has been a weak spot for Dallas in recent seasons
Finding hidden yards on special teams often plays a role in winning games and the Cowboys were able to accomplish that in Week 14. Keeping that up in Week 15 against the 49ers could go a long way to allowing them to pick up their fifth win in 2020.
Stick to what works on offense
The Cowboys aren’t the same offense with backup quarterback Andy Dalton at the helm. The absence of Dak Prescott has been felt each week. Nevertheless, the Dallas offense played an effective game in Cincinnati. The unit was 5 for 11 on third downs, got all three of their top wide receivers involved, and, despite not having their best day on the ground, ran for over 100 yards.
If Dalton can spread the ball around – six different players had at least two targets against the Bengals – and have a completion percentage around 70% again, the offense should find success.
The Cowboys don’t have to take too many chances, or try too many trick plays, to make the offense work. Efficiency trumps trickery.
Do you think the Cowboys will find success in Week 15 in their first home game since Thanksgiving? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.