The Dallas Cowboys, stunningly, will probably be excluded from those discussions after a dreadful performance Sunday. They came up small, Carson Wentz came up big, and here is what to know:
Changes are on the way in Dallas. That’s the only conclusion to be reached after the Cowboys’ embarrassing, 17-9 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia. In the biggest game of the season, with a chance to clinch the NFC East, Dallas gave a spiritless and clueless performance that should spell the end of Jason Garrett’s 10-year tenure. The Cowboys played poorly in every way football allows.
One week after the Cowboys displayed the extent of their talent in a blowout victory over the Los Angeles Rams, they revealed the depth of their fundamental issues Sunday. The Cowboys, 4-8 in their past 12 games, had a ceaseless procession of crucial mistakes and poor decisions. They didn’t score a touchdown against a less talented opponent playing without its three best wide receivers, its best offensive lineman and for stretches without its two best cornerbacks.
The fulcrum of the game summed it up. On a drive early in the third quarter while trailing 10-6, the Cowboys had moved the ball into field goal range against a defense forced into playing two backup cornerbacks. Ezekiel Elliott asked out of the game. Despite advantageous matchups on the outside, the Cowboys slammed backup running back Tony Pollard into the middle on second and two for one yard. They then ran the option, and after Dak Prescott pitched, Pollard fumbled. The Eagles recovered, and they never relinquished control of the game.
In Dallas, the pieces do not add up. Amari Cooper, playing through injury, was out of sync with Prescott and dropped an easy catch that should have converted a third down. For two crucial third-and-one plays, Elliott was not on the field. Cooper and Randall Cobb weren’t on the field for a fourth-and-eight play that would be Dallas’s final offensive snap.
Players deserved blame, and Prescott’s right shoulder injury led to a bushel of missed throws that should have been big plays. But it ultimately falls on Garrett. Jerry Jones’s likely search for his replacement could shake the sport. The Cowboys may pursue Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, which could lead to the NFL’s most glamorous franchise landing the most coveted coach and leaving a college football powerhouse seeking a new leader.
It’s all coming up Eagles. Philadelphia didn’t only score a galvanizing victory, perhaps the most impressive of Carson Wentz’s career, given the stakes and the teammates around him. The Eagles also saw other results around the league that suggest they can actually advance in the playoffs. If Minnesota beats Green Bay on Monday night and San Francisco beats Seattle next week, the Eagles would be lined up to face the Seahawks.
Seattle looks vulnerable, and not just because the Seahawks suffered a startling, 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Coach Pete Carroll said running back Chris Carson and left tackle Duane Brown suffered season-ending injuries in the loss.
The top of the draft order solidified in insane fashion. In the words of Washington Post Redskins beat writer Kareem Copeland: The four worst teams in the NFL played the two best games of the day. Bengals-Dolphins and Redskins-Giants both went to overtime tied at 35 after massive comebacks by Washington and Cincinnati, the latter of which required a touchdown on fourth down, an onside kick, a two-point conversion, a final-snap Hail Mary and another two-point conversion.
New York beat Washington with a touchdown — Daniel Jones’s fifth scoring pass of the day — on its first possession. Cincinnati lost on a Jason Sanders field goal. Those results gave the Bengals (1-14) the No. 1 draft pick and moved the Redskins (3-12) into position for No. 2.
The Bengals are on the clock, and we can probably already start wondering who the second pick will be. The Bengals like taking players with local ties, and they need a quarterback. LSU’s Joe Burrow is the consensus top quarterback in the draft, is from Ohio and started his college career at Ohio State. It would be a major surprise if Burrow isn’t a Bengal. That puts the Redskins, for now, in position to take Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, unless their new coach wants to move on from Dwayne Haskins and take a quarterback.
The road to the Super Bowl officially runs through Baltimore. The Ravens clinched the top seed in the AFC with a 31-15 victory in Cleveland, a game that was initially interesting before the Ravens pulled away and the Browns imploded. The Ravens didn’t score until 1:18 remained in the second quarter, at which point Mark Andrews scored twice before halftime.
The Browns are the first team other than the pitiful Bengals to play the Ravens a second time this season. During that sluggish start, did the Browns’ defense reveal something a playoff opponent could use against Baltimore? Probably not. One longtime assistant coach said the Ravens simply came out flat, with a vanilla game plan designed not to give anything away heading into the playoffs, and the Browns’ defensive scheme had nothing to do with the Ravens’ scoreless first 28 minutes. (The 31 points they ended up with backed up that point.)
The victory may have come with a price. Mark Ingram II, who matched a franchise record with his 15th touchdown, suffered a calf strain in the second half, went to the locker room and did not return. He’ll at least have three weeks to heal before the Ravens’ next meaningful game.
The Steelers are on the ropes. Coach Mike Tomlin deserves a parade for squeezing eight victories out of Devlin Hodges, Mason Rudolph, an elite defense, a razor blade and a ball of twine, but Pittsburgh’s MacGyver routine ran out of time this week. The New York Jets manhandled the Steelers in a 16-10 loss, and Hodges was benched for Rudolph.
The potentially season-destroying loss flipped the fight for the final AFC wild-card spot. Entering the day, the Steelers needed to win out to ensure a playoff spot, because they held the conference record tiebreaker over Tennessee. But losing to the AFC’s Jets gave them the same conference record as the Titans, who lost to the NFC’s New Orleans Saints.
So now the Titans, even after losing, control their own playoff future because they own the strength-of-victory tiebreaker over Pittsburgh. If they beat the Texans next week in Houston, they will be the sixth seed.
For the Steelers, the problem is that the Texans have only seeding to play for — they can’t secure a bye, but they’ve already clinched the AFC South. The Steelers are in the same situation against the Ravens, but it won’t matter unless the Titans suffer a surprising loss.
The Patriots found something. But will it be enough? New England played its best offensive game in months Saturday in its 24-17, division-clinching victory over Buffalo and the Bills’ excellent defense. First-round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry, growing healthier and more attuned to the system, looked like a weapon both when running with the ball and blocking.
The Patriots’ key move came by leaning heavily on a two-back formation with Rex Burkhead at running back and linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback. Burkhead’s rare combination of power running and route-running ability gives him positional flexibility the Patriots can maximize. And Roberts’s heavy role gave the Patriots an effective running attack, the same thing they leaned on during their Super Bowl run last year. Afterward, Roberts’s explicit description of his role — about running through a blankety-blank’s face — sounded like a rallying cry.
Here is the issue. The Patriots’ plan Saturday was designed to win a game in the low-20s. In the AFC playoffs, they are going to run into the Ravens or Chiefs, if not both. Even with their great defense, the Patriots will have to score to beat those opponents. In last year’s AFC championship game, the Patriots leaned not on their running game but on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to beat Kansas City in an overtime shootout. If Tom Brady needs to go point-for-point with a prolific quarterback this January, does he have the weaponry to pull it off?
Michael Thomas put the final touches on an all-time season. In the Saints’ 38-28 victory in Tennessee, Thomas surpassed Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 catches in a season, snagging his 145th with one game remaining. Against the Titans, he caught 12 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, a career day for most but just another Sunday for Thomas.
He also leads the NFL with 1,688 receiving yards, and he has nine touchdown receptions. Thomas’s underlying numbers are more impressive: He has caught 82.4 percent of the passes thrown to him, which is best among wide receivers; Tennessee’s Adam Humphries, who has 37 catches on 47 targets, is second at 78.7 percent. Thomas’s combination of volume and efficiency is extraordinary, and it makes him the best wide receiver in the NFL.