After two straight victories, the Dallas Cowboys still have playoff aspirations. Here’s what to watch for against Oakland in Week 15.
Back in August, this week 15 matchup between NFL royalty was thought to be a preview of what Super Bowl LII might look like.
Last year, the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys combined for 25 wins. Both teams feature a young, dynamic quarterback, great offensive lines and star power at wide receiver. Even though neither won a playoff game in 2016, it appeared that both would prosper this year.
Instead, both have struggled for vastly different reasons. While the Cowboys were hit with a ridiculous suspension of their star running back, Oakland has never found its mojo.
Much like how Dallas is missing their biggest catalyst offensively, the Raiders are too… sort of.
While quarterback David Carr has only been absent for two games instead of Ezekiel Elliott‘s six, Carr is not the same guy he was a season ago. The completion percentage and yards per attempt are the exact same. The touchdowns are down, while the interceptions are up.
It’s more than just that, however.
The confidence and comfortability Carr played with last year is simply not there. There have been injuries, to his hand, leg and back within the last year. He’s also been sacked more this year than in all of 2016.
As Dak Prescott can attest to, having a reliable running game can often be a quarterback’s best friend. Oakland is missing that too. Last year, the Raiders could boast ownership of a top ten rushing and scoring offense. This year, Oakland ranks 22nd in scoring and 27th in rushing.
Bringing in Marshawn Lynch simply has not been the answer. While his presence is often entertaining, he’s not doing much to debunk the theory on aging running backs.
So, how can the Dallas Cowboys do what they need to do against a disappointing, yet dangerous opponent? Here’s what to watch for in what still amounts to a Super Bowl of sorts for Dallas in Week 15.
- After a dismal three games in mid-to-late November, Dak Prescott has become Dak Prescott again. In his last two games, Prescott has five touchdown passes and no interceptions. Last week, he threw for 300 yards for the first time all season.
So, what changed? Sacks. In those three horrible games, Prescott was sacked 14 times but just once in the last two. Facing the reigning defensive play of the year in Khalil Mack, it will be imperative that Dallas keep Prescott upright. Dallas has only one win all year in games allowing multiple sacks of Prescott.
- The timing of the Dallas Cowboys passing game renaissance could not have come at a better time. Oakland is 25th in passing yards allowed. They are dead last in opposing quarterback rating, allowing a passer rating of 105.3. They are also dead last at intercepting the ball, registering just two all year.
Since Prescott is naturally good at protecting the ball, this could lead to another big day for Cowboys signal caller.
- Even though Lynch is not the guy he was five years ago, the Cowboys must be able to neutralize the Raiders ground game. Missing David Irving at defensive tackle for a second straight game is a big loss. The Raiders still have a top notch offensive line and could make this a tougher game for Dallas if they get rolling on the ground.
Richard Ash, Lewis Neal and Datone Jones all need to play better than they did last week. The Giants were keeping the game close into the fourth quarter in large part to gaining 100+ yards on the ground. If Dallas wants to win, they’ll need to keep Oakland around 80.
- It will be interesting to see who between Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis covers Michael Crabtree tonight. While Crabtree isn’t what one might consider an upper echelon receiver, he is a solid veteran, capable of having some big games. Without Amari Cooper, Crabtree becomes the de facto number one option.
Awuzie and Lewis have been playing very well of late. If either one is able to shut down Crabtree, it will go a long way towards building the confidence of these two, which is big for any cornerback. Removing Crabtree from the equation would help make Carr’s life a lot harder as well.
Of the three remaining games on the Dallas Cowboys schedule, this one feels like the hardest. This is the last game without Elliott. Next week they are at home playing a Seahawks team questionable when forced to travel. After that, they get Philadelphia without Carson Wentz.
The Cowboys must not look ahead and focus on the task at hand. While Oakland has not been what they were expected to be, they still have talent. Oakland averages 29 points per game in their wins and just 13 in their losses. The Dallas defense must show up tonight in order to make next week matter.