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What we learned: Week 17 loss sends Cowboys back to the drawing board

The Dallas Cowboys had their chance to make their case in the NFC ahead of the playoffs but a loss to Arizona gives them plenty to address
Credit: AP
Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons (9) forces a fumble by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. The Cardinals recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys started off the new year with a 25-22 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17. With a shot at the top seed in the NFC erased with the loss, Dallas now sits at 11-5 on the season. Normally that would be the end of the story for the regular season and the league would be getting ready for the playoffs. 

However, it’s a new day in the NFL and there’s an extra game to be played. After a perfect December and climbing as high as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Dallas is now on the outside looking in at a second home game in the postseason as the NFC’s No. 4 seed.

Here’s a look at what to take away from the Week 17 loss:

Offense needs to keep the pedal down

When things didn’t start off quickly for the Cowboys on offense, things seemed to slow down. There wasn’t a sense of urgency from the offense and they didn’t push the pace. 

After going up tempo against the Washington Football Team the week prior and scoring 42 points on offense, it felt like Kellen Moore had figured some things out. It was expected that the Cowboys would continue to use more no huddle and try to get the offense in rhythm.

Yet when things didn’t go to plan early, and the Cowboys only scored seven points in the first half, there wasn’t much tempo on offense afterward. The Cardinals disguised their defensive looks to slow things down, but the Cowboys need to figure out a way to be more proactive rather than reactive on offense.

Put players in position to succeed

This feels like a recurring theme for the Dallas offense. Doing things like asking tight end Dalton Schultz to be a focal point as a blocker was an issue. It’s understood that he’ll have to block some, that’s the nature of his position, but the Cowboys had him one-on-one too many times against one of the Cardinals’ best defenders, defensive end Chandler Jones. 

That was never going to work, and Jones made the Cowboys pay with two tackles for loss.

It’s hard to change what you want to do and the Cowboys have had their offense installed for months now, but calling fewer plays that have Schultz going solo against bigger, stronger, faster defenders should be a no-brainer moving forward.

Cowboys will be fine with Cedrick Wilson

Losing wide receiver Michael Gallup hurts, but the Cowboys have a great option to plug in and keep the offense going. Wilson has had a solid season and has played well when Gallup was out earlier in the year, so an expanded role for him moving forward isn’t an issue. 

Many of the Cowboys’ biggest plays on offense this year have come from Wilson, including a few key ones against the Cardinals.

Wilson caught a touchdown, but his 4th-&-1 catch was huge to keep Dallas in the game, and he caught a tough two-point conversion as well. The throwback pass he completed to Tony Pollard was also a big play and should keep defenses honest.

Dak Prescott needs to use his legs

For much of the season, Prescott and the Cowboys have resisted the temptation to allow Prescott to tuck the ball and run. Against the Cardinals, it was apparent how much his mobility can strain a defense and open up the offense. Prescott only had 20 yards, but when he escaped the pocket, he was looking for opportunities to run, which hasn’t been the case for much of the year.

One of the scrambles resulted in a first down that was called back by a hold, but the sight of Prescott moving out of the pocket and running is a welcome one. The 4th-&-1 call with Prescott keeping it on the read-option is another play that we have rarely seen called this season. The play worked and is difficult to defend with all of the other offensive weapons for the Cowboys. 

Keeping Prescott healthy is priority No. 1 but when he’s showing the ability to run, it adds an element to the offense that defenses haven’t seen much of this season.

Cowboys must improve poise

It can no longer be a surprise when the Cowboys have a lot of penalties in a game or when officials make mistakes that hurt the Cowboys. There seems to be a bevy of questionable calls that go against Dallas each week. That’s life in the NFL. 

Regardless, for the Cowboys to gain an edge against good teams, they need to try to excel at the things that they can control. One of those things is scouting for what each week’s officiating crew might throw at them and the other is to stop giving the refs an excuse to call penalties on them with undisciplined play. 

If the Cowboys can’t help themselves, officiating cannot be used as an excuse in tight games, as it was against the Cardinals.

Do you think the Cowboys are still in position to make some noise in the playoffs? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.