We overreact to just about everything each week in the NFL. It’s part of the charm.
If you want a perfect formula for a grand overreaction, this was it: A good Dallas Cowboys team playing an incredible game in prime time, piling up 56 points as the offensive stars shined, the defense was dominant and the special teams even made the highlights. A 56-14 win over any team catches everyone’s attention.
And away we go.
You’re going to hear “Cowboys” and “Super Bowl” together a lot this week. It’s not crazy. Dallas has the blue-chip stars to compete with anyone. If you’re making a list of contenders, the Cowboys have to be on it.
That doesn’t mean the Cowboys turned into the 1984 49ers just because they destroyed the middling Washington Football Team. Here’s why we need to pump the brakes:
The path will be hard – The Cowboys are still in the mix for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but it’s most likely going to the Packers. The most likely outcome, based on what’s left on the schedule, is the No. 3 or 4 seed. Anything can happen, but a likely NFC path for Dallas is a wild-card game against the Cardinals, then a game at Tampa Bay before a late January date at Lambeau Field. Just because the Buccaneers got hot late and went on a similar run through the playoffs last season doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The offense was slumping: Recency bias means since we just saw the Cowboys blow up, we believe their offense is great. We forgot that a few days ago there was talk was about how Dak Prescott hadn’t been playing great since a calf injury and Ezekiel Elliott looked old. The Cowboys failed to top 377 yards in five of seven games after Prescott’s injury. They almost got shut out at home by the Broncos and had nine points against the Chiefs. Maybe the blowout of Washington was the sign that everything is right again and the Cowboys’ many offensive stars will get on a roll. Maybe we should wait to see it again.
The defense relies on turnovers: Dallas leads the NFL with 33 takeaways. It has 25 interceptions and nobody else has more than 20. The Cowboys are built for big plays and a turnover-reliant defense can do great things. The 2009 Saints, who won a Super Bowl, are a great template for that. But the Cowboys aren’t going to shut down most offenses. Only five teams have allowed more yards per pass and only seven are allowing more yards per rush. There’s nothing wrong with how the Cowboys play defense, but what happens if they’re not forcing mistakes against Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady?
This season is getting wacky: Look around the NFL. There were 106 players put on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, bringing the number to 476 since Dec. 13, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Media. The Cowboys aren’t any more at risk to have an outbreak at the wrong time, but it seems inevitable some team is going to have its playoff dreams ended in a miserable way in January. If you want to make the argument the Cowboys are the best team this season it’s fine, but of all seasons in which the best team might not win, maybe it’s this one.
Dallas is having a very good season. Of course it’s possible for the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl. The talent is undeniable. But there will be a lot of talk this week about the greatness of the Cowboys. Next week, we’ll probably be on to the next hot team.
Here are the power rankings following Week 16 of the NFL season:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13, Last Week: 32)
James Robinson’s Achilles injury is really bad. He’s one of the Jaguars’ best players (everyone but Urban Meyer knows this) and running backs have a bad history of coming back from that injury. Hopefully Robinson bucks the trend.
31. New York Giants (4-11, LW: 30)
Saquon Barkley had 28 yards on 16 touches against the Eagles, then reporters noted he didn’t speak to the media after the game or on Monday. The former matters way more than the latter. It has been a long time since we’ve seen Barkley look like a star.
30. Houston Texans (4-11, LW: 31)
Davis Mills played well again, this time without Brandin Cooks. The Texans haven’t done much right, but they have a third-round draft pick who arguably has been the second-best rookie QB this season.
29. New York Jets (4-11, LW: 29)
Michael Carter had a career-best 118 yards rushing in the win. The rookie fourth-round draft pick has had a nice season and will be a big part of the team’s 2022 plans.
28. Detroit Lions (2-12-1, LW: 28)
Again, the Lions played hard. A late interception by replacement QB Tim Boyle ruined their hopes of a win at Atlanta, but it was another commendable performance from a team that doesn’t have the talent to win yet. There are teams — like Matt Patricia’s Lions — who don’t like their coach and check out. That’s not the case in Detroit this season.
27. Carolina Panthers (5-10, LW: 26)
The season is unraveling so badly that Matt Rhule is citing Jay-Z’s career path after fans chanted that he needed to be fired. “I believe it’s 1,000 percent working,” Rhule said. “I just know no one can see it, and I apologize. As I tell our team all the time, it took Jay-Z like seven years. He had to start his own agency to become famous, to become an overnight sensation. It takes time.”
26. Seattle Seahawks (5-10, LW: 24)
The question for the Seahawks or anyone trying to trade for Russell Wilson this offseason is how much his relative struggles have been due to the finger injury he suffered and rushed back from. Pete Carroll says Wilson isn’t slipping. “The quarterback position with Russ having to deal with what he’s dealt with, which most players could not have handled the way he did, we’ve got to see how he bounces back,” Carroll told 710 ESPN in Seattle. “He will certainly be great again. He’s going to be a great player. I don’t feel like it shows right now, but I think that’s what’s going to happen because he’s got it in him to do that.”
25. Chicago Bears (5-10, LW: 27)
Players don’t care about how their draft position is negatively affected by wins. That’s just a new player who might be taking their job anyway. Coaches aren’t too worried either, especially someone like Matt Nagy who presumably realizes he’s unlikely to be around in 2022. Winning, even in a lost season, is what they work all week for and getting a comeback win on an awesome two-point conversion catch in the last two minutes makes the slog of the season’s final few weeks more palatable.
24. Washington Football Team (6-9, LW: 23)
Arguments happen on the sideline. It’s not as big of a deal as it’s often made out to be. Teammate fights even happen. But when your season is slipping away and you’re in the process of giving up 56 points, and one defensive lineman swings at another after being poked in the face, it’s a bad look for a franchise that specializes in bad looks.
23. Atlanta Falcons (7-8, LW: 25)
Kyle Pitts had 102 yards on Sunday and now has 949 for the season with two games to go. That’s the second-most in NFL history for a rookie tight end. He’s 127 short of Mike Ditka’s record (Ditka did it in 14 games). It doesn’t seem like Pitts is having a historic season, but he is. Maybe it doesn’t seem that great because he has just one touchdown.
22. Denver Broncos (7-8, LW: 22)
It’s not like there should have been any Drew Lock truthers left, but they all should be jumping ship now. Lock had a chance to start against a mediocre Raiders defense and the Broncos had 158 yards and eight first downs. Lock might not even be a viable backup for the Broncos going forward.
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-8, LW: 18)
The Vikings have lost five games this season when they had a positive turnover margin, via Ben Goessling of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. That seems impossible. They’re the 23rd team in the Super Bowl era to lose five games in a season while winning the turnover battle, Goessling said. No wonder Vikings fans are fed up.
20. New Orleans Saints (7-8, LW: 19)
The Saints had no shot Monday night, with a decimated offense led by rookie quarterback Ian Book. It stinks, because that might be the game that costs them a playoff berth.
19. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1, LW: 16)
The Steelers haven’t scored a first-half touchdown in five straight games, the first time that has happened to the franchise since 1940 according to CBS’ broadcast of Sunday’s game. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is under a lot of heat, even with the acknowledgement that the Steelers have personnel challenges.
18. Miami Dolphins (8-7, LW: 20)
It’s crazy, but the Dolphins will enter 2022 in the playoff bracket. They have games against the Titans and Patriots to go, but rallying from 1-7 is impressive. They’re the first team in NFL history with a seven-game winning streak and a seven-game losing streak in the same season.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-7, LW: 14)
Did the Bengals run it up on the Ravens, throwing deep late in the game when they were up 20? Yep. The Ravens are also the same team that ran an unnecessary play to keep a record of 100-yard rushing games going earlier this season. They weren’t wrong to do that, and the Bengals weren’t wrong to call whatever plays they wanted. The Ravens better not complain about it.
16. Cleveland Browns (7-8, LW: 15)
Every game Baker Mayfield plays will be a judgment on his second contract. That’s where we are. And the loss against the Packers wasn’t good for him. But if the Browns beat the Steelers, the Chiefs beat the Bengals and the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17, we’re looking at a Week 18 showdown (likely on Sunday night) between the Browns and Bengals for the AFC North title. It could be worse.
15. Las Vegas Raiders (8-7, LW: 21)
The Raiders are still, somehow, alive in the playoff race. A lot broke their way in Week 16, The problem is their last two games are at the Colts and against the Chargers.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7, LW: 12)
The Chargers took one of the worst losses of the NFL season and saw their chances to make the playoffs go from 78 percent to 38.3 before kickoff on Monday night, via Football Outsiders. The Chargers missing the playoffs because they were blown out by a terrible Texans team would be another chapter of misery for this star-crossed franchise.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7, LW: 17)
At halftime, the Eagles were tied with a putrid Giants team 3-3. They pulled away in the second half, and they’re in decent shape to make the playoffs, but it’s hard to know what to make of this Philly team.
12. San Francisco 49ers (8-7, LW: 10)
Jimmy Garoppolo has what sounds like a serious thumb injury. Rookie Trey Lance has exciting talent but it’s a hard ask if he has to play right now, with the 49ers looking good (but not a lock) for the playoffs and hoping to make a run there.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6, LW: 13)
I don’t know if Joe Burrow should have been annoyed by Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale saying it was too early to fit Burrow for a Hall of Fame jacket, but Burrow noticed. That seemed to be a reason the Bengals were throwing deep late, trying to get Burrow over 500 yards and rub in a win over Baltimore. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned rivalries in the NFL. The league needs more of that sometimes.
10. Tennessee Titans (10-5, LW: 11)
The Titans were going to feel a lot of pressure from the Colts without that win last week over the 49ers. It was a big one. The return of A.J. Brown, who had one of the best games for any receiver all season, is massive for the Titans’ hopes of advancing in the playoffs.
9. Arizona Cardinals (10-5, LW: 7)
Arizona has a three-game losing streak and a trip to Dallas coming up. I don’t think the Cardinals were frauds at 10-2, and it’s possible Arizona can turn this around. The talent is there. The problem is they’ve lost control of the NFC West and their most likely playoff path is having to win at the Rams, then at the Packers, then at the Buccaneers or Cowboys to make the Super Bowl. Good luck.
8. New England Patriots (9-6, LW: 6)
In a span of nine days the Patriots went from the No. 1 seed in the AFC to a significant underdog to win the AFC East. The Patriots can still go on a playoff run but it will always be tough with a rookie quarterback, no matter how well Mac Jones has played at times.
7. Indianapolis Colts (9-6, LW: 8)
Winning at Arizona, with a patchwork offensive line, should get Frank Reich in the Coach of the Year conversation. The Colts continue to impress. Had they not lost some close games earlier this season they’d have had a good shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They’re playing on that level now and will be a very good wild-card team.
6. Buffalo Bills (9-6, LW: 9)
The Bills should have had Josh Allen running it often in that windstorm game against the Patriots. They leaned on Allen in the passing game and the running game in the Patriots rematch on Sunday to get a win that puts Buffalo in control of the AFC East. The Bills are back to being a very interesting playoff team. Some of the disappointing losses earlier this season don’t matter much anymore, as long as they handle business against the Falcons and Jets to finish the season.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4, LW: 5)
Ke’Shawn Vaughn was a third-round draft pick last season and has made very little impact. He got a chance to play more Sunday with Leonard Fournette out due to injury, and his 55-yard touchdown run was the best play of his career. Maybe it’s a sign that he can contribute to a playoff run.
4. Los Angeles Rams (11-4, LW: 4)
Maybe it’s finding a silver lining, but there’s something to be said about the Rams beating a decent Vikings team on the road with Matthew Stafford playing a bad game. Stafford is never going to be a sure thing come playoff time, but Los Angeles has other ways it can win.
3. Dallas Cowboys (11-4, LW: 3)
Micah Parsons has a great shot to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He’s getting publicity late and that will continue. There’s a concern that Trevon Diggs could steal some Cowboys votes if he keeps piling up interceptions, but no other player is taking over the race like Parsons. What a remarkable rookie season.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4, LW: 2)
Even without Travis Kelce, the Chiefs rolled the Steelers. The Steelers might be flawed but they’re not bad, and Kansas City had zero problems with them. It’s getting harder to talk yourself into anybody but Kansas City making the Super Bowl out of the AFC.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-3, LW: 1)
The Packers lived on the edge against the Browns, with their run defense looking shaky. They got an interception at the end that probably should have been called defensive holding. The two-point win came after a one-point win at Baltimore. They’re still wins but you’d like to see the Packers peaking a little more. That might be nitpicking since they’re still in line to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.