In the NFL, the objective during the regular season is to win. Whatever the betting line is or however the teams stack up against each other on paper, if one team doesn’t show up on game day, anything can happen.
“Obviously, we understand what their record is,” Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said ahead of the their game against the 1-8 Carolina Panthers. “They have some change going on over there. So, we’re anticipating their best shot. That’s the way we’ve got to look at every opportunity. We’re going there to win. We’re going in there to play to our standard and keep growing, building as a football team because you’re only guaranteed so many opportunities. We need this seventh win. We got to improve.”
The Cowboys (6-3) don’t have to look far to see the importance of not underestimating an opponent. Until last week, the only win the Arizona Cardinals had this season was their Week 3 triumph over the Cowboys. Dallas knows it has to secure a win at Carolina on Sunday. They know that being a two-touchdown favorite doesn’t guarantee anything.
While it’s hard to draw many big-picture conclusions about the Cowboys as they work through this portion of the schedule, this three-game stretch is still very important for the team and can contribute greatly to the big-picture goals they want to accomplish.
“Every opportunity to play on Sunday is a huge opportunity to improve and grow, and not just the things that have gone right,” McCarthy said. “I think going into the Giants game, there was so much emphasis on their pressure, how you’re going to handle it and how you’re going to attack it.
“We’re going to have a similar type of situation this Sunday. They do a lot of simulated blitzes, their line movement for our offensive line will probably be the most we’ve seen on the year. We didn’t do very well in that area with the Chargers, so that’s where my mind goes. So, how are we going to get better?”
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There are things to gain for the Cowboys on a weekly basis. In Sunday’s win against the Giants, there was the manifestation of Brandin Cooks’ involvement in the offense. Cooks was saying all of the right things before his big game, expressing confidence in his own abilities as well as the ability of the system to get him involved. Still, it’s another thing to experience it and know that it’s possible, especially after things were as dry as they were through the first eight weeks. Cooks’ performance should also serve as a learning tool for the coaching staff on what the offense can look like when it gets Cooks involved in the passing game, without it coming at the expense of CeeDee Lamb,
Another thing to come from the Giants game was a glimpse at a potential solution to the running game woes. The Cowboys got Rico Dowdle involved quite a bit and saw what a split workload in the backfield could look like. Against the Giants, it was fairly inconsequential but it’s something that McCarthy and his staff can look at with more confidence.
Getting Cooks involved and changing up the running game formula were productive things to come out of a game that otherwise didn’t have much to offer for the conversation about the Cowboys’ hopes in December and January. In the coming weeks, there are other aspects the Cowboys need to tidy up.
One thing that must be cleaner is the Cowboys’ performance on the road. Dallas is 4-0 at home this season but only 2-3 on the road, including the early-season loss in Arizona. With the possibility of the Cowboys having to play on the road in the playoffs, getting that consistency figured out is important. The Panthers may be a weak team but they provide a good opportunity for the Cowboys to improve their road game. Having a good game Sunday in North Carolina is not exactly a given. In the last two games of the regular season last year (both on the road), the Cowboys struggled in Tennessee against a reeling Titans team before eventually pulling away. Then, they lost to a mediocre Commanders team in the season finale in Washington.
The Cowboys will also have the chance to build upon the work they’ve been putting in on the offensive line. Since Tyron Smith missed the game against the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys have had two consecutive games with their full starting five. Staying healthy is the first order of business there but getting the chemistry between the five starters is important, too.
“It starts with them,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We can talk about CeeDee going for three games, 150 (yards), Brandin having 170 game, me playing as well as I am — none of that happens without these guys up front busting their asses and fighting.”
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Right tackle Terence Steele had a rough game in Philadelphia and bounced back against the Giants. That’s something he can continue to build on over the next few games. The same holds true for other aspects of the offense, whether it’s Luke Schoonmaker working through his drops or Jake Ferguson continuing his progress and Michael Gallup rediscovering some of his old flame.
Defensively, the Cowboys were already operating without Leighton Vander Esch for the past month but now they know he won’t be walking through the door this season. Making sure the linebackers are in a rhythm and understand their roles and assignments. The same holds true for Mazi Smith, who had a good game against the Giants.
Regular-season wins — and losses — hold the same weight in the standings. It doesn’t matter if the opponent is a measuring stick team like the Eagles or a team that’s going nowhere this season like the Panthers. The Cowboys already learned the lesson that they can’t look past any opponent on the schedule.
There is, though, a different margin for error. A tougher stretch is right around the corner but the Cowboys have a wider margin for error with the opponents they’re facing right now. They need to make sure to capitalize by earning more than just wins on the scoreboard.
(Top photo of Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)
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