FRISCO, Texas – You know what they say, especially when we start to age a little, er, a lot, how time flies? Well, this 2022 NFL season seems to have been on the jet stream.
Well, it’s already Week 18. Game 17. The last game of the regular season when it seems like we just upped the ante in Oxnard, California, like a week ago. If I had talked to a guy my size after that practice against the Chargers in Costa Mesa, Calif., about how he thought he’d make it in the NFL at 5-foot-7 but 158 pounds when he still has to double-check his spelling his name. Was that Kav or wait, Ka capital V? Then only to discover that there is something about “Turpin Time”. And now, five months later, it’s NFC Pro Bowl running back KaVontae Turpin.
And yet, even after 16 games, even after the Cowboys won 12 games in back-to-back seasons, they lost four. Even after clinching the NFC Wild-Card playoff spot, assured of at least playing Tampa Bay in the first round thanks to this season’s second-half streak in which they’ve won five of their last six games, they still have a lot to play for 3:25 p.m. Sunday against the defeated Washingtons at FedEx Field.
Right, CeeDee? All those playoff scenarios still in play?
“Yeah, but the damn things stress me out,” says CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ third-year wide receiver. “So I’ll be honest. I don’t pay too much attention to scripts because if we’re meant to be, we’re meant to be.”
There is no point in worrying about the little things. As the 23-year-old receiver, who is nine catches short of tying Michael Irvin’s single-season franchise record of 111 receptions set in 1995, sees it, he has a game to play on Sunday. Game to win on Sunday. A game for his team that needs to continue to improve and build momentum heading into the playoffs.
When you are 23 years old, there is no rest in football.
And that’s exactly the right mindset for a far-from-perfect team that’s 12-4 and has to play a losing Washington team that’s 7-8-1 already eliminated from playoff contention and starting as a rookie quarterback taking his first snaps of the regular season . since last running for 812 yards and 11 touchdowns at North Carolina in 2021.
Welcome to the NFL, Sam Howell. Meet the Cowboys defense that has already amassed 51 sacks, the most in a season since 2008, 59 under head coach Mr. Wade Phillips’ Fix It and the second-highest sack since a 53-sack season in 1986, if you can believe that.
So because of those scenarios, CeeDee, there’s something to play for, as if simply winning isn’t enough.
Very simple. No stress. Cowboys win, Giants beat Eagles for second time this year, Cowboys win NFC East in back-to-back seasons for first time since five consecutive seasons from 1992-96, clinching first home playoff game against NFC. the seventh seed.
Also, CeeDee, and it’s really not that complicated, the Cowboys win, the Eagles lose and somehow San Francisco loses to the 4-12 Cardinals, the Cowboys get the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. That comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage during the conference playoffs.
So keep playing. Rest? Look, the last time the Cowboys played was last Thursday. This final game of the regular season will be their first in 10 days.
“We just have to control what we can control,” says the wise veteran, Zack Martin. “We’ve got to go out there and get the job done on Sunday. Then whatever happens up north, happens then. Really, we’ve got to control what we can control, and what we can control is go out there and play a good game of football on Sunday.”
In addition, this team has to solve problems. Take the offensive line. No starting center Tyler Biadasz. High ankle sprain. He’s out of this game, and who knows, although hopefully, I might miss that first round playoff game as well. Oh, think about a first round bye, as logically improbable as it is with all those chips falling on the Cowboys side, wouldn’t it be nice if Biadasz had another week to recover?
As it is, and as the Cowboys finished the Tennessee game making up for his loss, the left side of the offensive line moved to the right, left guard Connor McGovern to center, caught Tyler Smith at guard and inserted 40-year-old Jason Peters at left tackle, meaning the right Pro Bowl running back Martin and sweet veteran right tackle Tyron Smith remain as they are. Wouldn’t you want that starting five to get a bunch of pictures together in case the Cowboys have to get into a first-round game like that?
With all that said, who is the backup center now? And the Cowboys have a roster spot after releasing James Washington.
Also, how about with rookie TY Hilton increasing his snaps from 12 to 22 to say 30-something on Sunday in his third game with the Cowboys, the 11-year veteran taking on a bigger role as the third receiver?
And this defense? Don’t think the Cowboys are completely cool dealing with that third cornerback spot the past four games after losing starter Anthony Brown (Achilles). Kelvin Joseph had the first strike. Then the combination of DaRon Bland and Mackensie Alexander. Then Bland and Nahshon Wright. And they still haven’t given veteran Trayvon Mullen or Kendall Sheffield a chance. We’ll see.
And also, this issue is less and less bags. Well, the Cowboys had 48 in the first 12 games. That’s an average of four per game. But in the last four? Only three, and two of them zero.
“Teams are bringing in extra blockers, more than six or seven players,” defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. says. about the fall. “Also getting the ball out quickly,” something teams started copying what the Giants and Indianapolis started doing with lots of screens, passes, smoke screens and misdirection plays.
“And teams are attacking us on third down. But we still have some of the highest pressure rates.”
Most of all, the teams began to neutralize the fired leader Micah Parsons. A guy with 12 sacks in his first 11 games, now has one in his last five, though by Fowler’s count, Micah has 27 pressures in those five games. But that’s what happens when teams double down and triple down for self-preservation.
Look for adjustments there as well.
Pro Football Hall of Fame hopeful DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys’ leading sack leader since 1982 with 117, said, demonstrating to me after Thursday’s news conference, joined by Hall of Fame hopeful Darren Woodson, “They’ve got to start breaking the cornerback with his side.” Not only were teams setting up the run to Parsons’ side, especially on third down passes, but they were also compensating the tight end just outside the scrimmage to counter Parsons’ route to the quarterback.
Don’t think Ware, with 138.5 career sacks, doesn’t understand the physical punishment the undersized Parsons went through rushing late from defensive end.
Look, this team has a lot to do in this final game, and more than just dealing with CeeDee’s stress-inducing playoff scenarios. There’s nothing wrong with a little playoff preparation, dealing with what head coach Mike McCarthy calls “stressed out” in certain parts of the game.
“We’ve got to win, that’s our focus. First and foremost is winning,” says Dak Prescott, and usually when Dak talks, his teammates fall in line. “Playing well, yes, and building momentum, and if we win the championship, it’s not necessarily up to us at this point. We just have to come in and take care of business.” And as for the rest, “Yeah, that would be great.”
Okay, Dak, great. But if you happen to see the Eagles beating a Giants team already guaranteed to make the playoffs, are you going to retire some of the more prominent personnel if you have nothing left to gain?
“But you don’t play the game checking every quarter to see what the other score is. You have to play,” Dak says. “Like I always say, be where your feet are, be focused and make sure, like I said, we’re putting good things together. Clean up the stuff from last week and be better this week, and make sure we get this one step by step.”