Every NFL season sees almost half of the previous season’s playoff teams fail to qualify for the postseason. If the Dallas Cowboys want to avoid being one of those teams and more importantly, if they want to be a legitimate contender to reach the Super Bowl, they must improve on one major flaw from 2014.
Indeed, 2014 was an amazing season for Dallas in regards to surpassing expectations by a mile. However, the season could have been even better if all four of the Cowboy’s losses had not been to teams in their own conference.
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Dallas lost to the San Francisco 49’ers 28 -17 in week one, lost 20-17 in overtime at home against the Washington Redskins and their third sting quarterback Colt McCoy, fell to the Arizona Cardinals the next week 28 – 17 with Tony Romo injured and lost on Thanksgiving to the division rival Philadelphia Eagles 33 -10. Those four games were the only blemishes on the Cowboys’ record and not only were they all at home but they all came back to haunt the Cowboys in the playoffs.
Each year, the battle for the playoffs and playoff positioning comes down to tiebreakers. Last year, Dallas lost a tiebreaker to the Green Bay Packers who also went 12-4 in the regular season but lost only three games within the NFC.
The Packers week 14 loss put the Packers and Cowboys even in the NFC race but since Green Bay’s 4th loss was to the Buffalo Bills of the AFC, Dallas was seeded third in NFC playoffs. Therefore, Dallas had to play at Green Bay in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
Home field advantage is critical in the NFL playoffs. While there is no guarantee that Dallas would have defeated the Packers had the game been played in AT&T Stadium, especially given that the Cowboys had only a 4-4 home record, they would have been in better position at home rather than playing at Lambeau Field where Green Bay was undefeated in 2014 and is 15-5 all-time in playoff games.
According to a video posted on the NFL’s website (www.nfl.com) titled “Football Freakonimics”, home teams win about 57% of the time in the NFL. And the reasons are more varied than one might imagine. Link
The video says that experts also attribute travel effects, familiarity with the environment and officials’ bias as contributors to the home field advantage. The third contributor on that list probably still strikes a nerve with Cowboys’ fans.
The video makes the point that officials are human and can be influenced by their surroundings like any other person. For proof, just look at the Cowboys’ two playoff games last season.
At home in the wild card round, Dallas received a break when a critical 4th quarter pass thrown by the Detroit Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford was broken up by Cowboys’ linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Many experts and fans around the country thought Carter was guilty of pass interference on the play but no flag was thrown.
Just a week later, on 4th and 2 with Dallas trailing by five points late in 4th quarter at Lambeau field, Cowboys’ wide receiver Dez Bryant appeared to make a miraculous jumping catch inside the Packers’ 10-yard-line. However, the play was reviewed and the call was overturned, a call which many NFL observers and pundits felt was the wrong call.
Keep in mind that NFL officials make instant replay decisions on their own unlike college football or Major League Baseball officials who simply receive the rulings from replay officials in a luxury box or in New York City. The NFL referees make the replay calls on the sidelines during the game when the jeers and taunts of a crowd can influence a person subconsciously if not overtly.
Had Dallas been able to trade a win against an AFC team, say their 42-7 December drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts, for another NFC win, Dallas would have had the home field advantage against the Packers where the Lambeau field mystic would not have been in play.
One other important aspect of playoff seeding to remember is that the top two seeds receive a first round bye in the playoffs.
That extra week of rest was crucial for the Packers last year. In their final regular season game, the Packers’ All-Pro quarterback, Aaron Rogers suffered a calf injury. It is likely that he would not have been able to play in the first round of the playoffs, which might have eliminated the Packers before they even played Dallas.
Meanwhile, after a physical game against the Lions in the first round, Dallas went into Green Bay with three linebackers: Bruce Carter, Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain nursing injuries. Dallas’ sack leader, defensive end Jeremy Mincey played only two weeks after recovering from a concussion and starting right tackle, Doug Free did not play at all.
The Cowboys expect to be in the Super Bowl this year. Tony Romo has even publicly guaranteed it. Link
However, the NFC is a rugged conference and to reach Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, Dallas will have to beat quality teams like the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay, Arizona, Philadelphia or Carolina. If Dallas is to earn its ninth Super Bowl birth (20 years after they last won the NFC title), the Cowboys must play better against their NFC opponents in 2015.