1. Sean Lee is a beast. He was credited for 18 tackles against the Giants and that really doesn’t give you a window into how good he was on Sunday night. The video below gives you a look at every play Lee made against the Giants.
The third play on the tape, at around one minute, is emblematic of how he played on Sunday. Lee is in the lower half of the frame, four yards off the line of scrimmage (look for the box surrounding him). The Giants are in the shotgun with a single back to Eli Manning’s right. Manning takes the snap and hands off. By the time Manning makes the handoff Lee has the play read and has already moved up three yards. Now here’s the real key. The Giants pulled their left guard to provide their back with a lead blocker on the play. I think this play was designed for the back to bounce outside and use the guard as a seal for the inside defender. That’s not how it worked out. If you look at the tape there’s a small seam between the guard and the rest of the offensive line and instead of pursuing the back to the outside Lee chose to thread that needle. By the time the guard stops and plants Lee is already to his left and he has no shot to properly block him. The back, meanwhile, is stuffed before he gets to the line of scrimmage and even has a chance to cut outside. So Lee was so quick in diagnosing and pursuing the play he made it before the Giants had a real chance to set the blocking they wanted. Amazing.
But that’s what Lee does. He’s on his way to another Pro Bowl and, hopefully, his first All-Pro season. He has been that good this season as he’s piled up 130 tackles with three games left.
2. Did you all forget that Tampa Bay beat Dallas last year? You might have if you’re trying to erase that 4-12 season from your mind. But Dallas did face the Bucs on the road last season and lost, 10-6. Of course the Cowboys had no Tony Romo in that game, but they had Dez Bryant. I bring this up because Bryant had just five catches for 45 yards against a Buccaneers secondary that had changed markedly from last season with the additions of Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves. I’m really interested to see if the Cowboys get the bounce-back Bryant they’ve gotten after the last two times this season Bryant caught just one pass in a game. In both of those games Bryant went for more than 100 yards receiving and caught a touchdown in one of them. I think this is one of the most intriguing matchups of this game.
3. Wess Moore of Fox Sports Radio in Arkansas and I talked Cowboys-Giants earlier this week. The theme of the conversation was Dak Prescott’s struggles and why the Cowboys face another formidable test against Tampa Bay. The link to the appearance is below.
I appear with Wess after every Cowboys game. Listen in at foxsportsarkansas.com if you don’t live there.
4. Lucky Whitehead partied and Lucky Whitehead apologized. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself on your night off, as Whitehead did last Friday night. But if you have obligations the next day, you must show up. Whitehead didn’t and that’s the reason he didn’t make the trip to New York. I’ll give him credit for not whining about it and accepting the punishment. There is no need to cut him in some Jimmy Johnson-like fit of making him an “example.”
Whitehead will either get better at managing his off-time during the season or he won’t. And if he doesn’t, you’d better believe it will make a difference in his remaining in Dallas.
5. As a public service, here is where the NFC playoff race stands going into the rest of this weekend’s games. Here is the current seeding:
1. Cowboys (11-2)*
2. Lions (8-4)
3. Seahawks (8-4-1)*
4. Falcons (8-5)
5. Giants (9-4)
6. Buccaneers (8-5)
And now a quick breakdown of each team and their chances moving forward.
Cowboys: Dallas clinches the NFC East with a win, combined with a Giants loss, in Week 15. The Cowboys could also wrap up home-field advantage if the Lions lose.
Lions: Detroit has two games on the field in the NFC North. The Lions face the Giants on Sunday, so that game is huge if you’re thinking about seeding. The Lions could either go into their Week 16 game with Dallas soaring or wounded. The Lions would have a hard time clinching the division this week, as they would need to win and need the Packers to lose. The Lions own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings.
Seahawks: Seattle clinched the NFC West and a playoff berth with a win Thursday night. The Seahawks are guaranteed a home game and still have a shot at a first-round bye.
Falcons: The Falcons have a tenuous hold on the NFC West, thanks to splitting their season series with Tampa Bay. The Falcons are the No. 4 seed for now because they would win the division if the season ended today, based on divisional record. The Cowboys could do the Falcons a huge favor on Sunday by beating the Bucs. Atlanta hosts San Francisco this Sunday.
Giants: The Giants remain a game ahead of the field for the first Wild Card berth and still have a chance of catching the Cowboys in the NFC East, but they cannot lose again. They face the Lions on Sunday.
Buccaneers: The Bucs are the hottest team in football and remain a half-game ahead of Washington for the second Wild Card berth, thanks in part to Washington’s tie earlier this season.
Outside looking in: Washington (7-5-1), Minnesota (7-6) and Green Bay (7-6) all remain in the race. The team to watch is the Packers, who have won three straight and have nothing but divisional games left.
Officially eliminated: San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.
6. Need to get ready for this Sunday’s game with the Buccaneers? Let me help. Here are links to all our stories from the game:
7. My three keys to Sunday’s game?
Better execution on first down. One of the hallmarks of this Cowboys team this season has been its ability to use the run game to get big chunks of yardage on first down and convert second and third downs into first down. Ezekiel Elliott has turned runs into first downs nearly 29 percent this season. Only Oakland’s Latavius Murray has done it more and it’s only by a couple of tenths of a percent. No team has run on first down more times than Dallas this season (122), and the only team that’s close is Buffalo (109). The misnomer of last week against the Giants is the Cowboys got away from the run game on first down. They didn’t, but they didn’t execute well on the down. Elliott ran it 16 times on first down (with one play called back) and gained 82 yards. He had four big plays of 9 (the play called back), 15, 14 and 18. Throw out those four plays and you see Elliott rushed for 26 yards on 12 plays, an average of 2.2 yards. That must change. So much Dak Prescott’s completion rate on first down. Last week Prescott was 2-of-8. They both need to deliver on Sunday. So must the players around them.
Compensate for Tank. With DeMarcus Lawrence out for this one the Cowboys need to get creative with their pass rush again. That means more reliance on Benson Mayowa on the end, and he needs to deliver like he has the past couple of weeks. Mayowa has had a sack each of the last two weeks. It also means more blitzing if you’re defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Force turnovers. Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston’s struggles are clear in games where the Bucs lose. His completion percentage drops by nearly 10 percent, his touchdown-to-interception rate goes down and his quarterback rating drops by nearly 30 points. Since Oct. 30 he’s thrown three interceptions and the Bucs are 5-2. The Cowboys know what they must do.
8. It’s our Tweet of the Week:
What no one’s telling you is that Giants head coach Bob McAdoo has a treehouse and he was just chatting with former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who is subletting. But my real question is if they’re not supposed to use them, then why do they have them in the first place?
9. This week’s great moments in headline porn: “The Dallas Cowboys are on the verge of disaster” from foxsports.com
Betcha clicked on that didn’t you?
10. My prediction: Cowboys 27, Bucs 24
The last time these Cowboys lost this season they went on the road and beat a talented Washington team in a hard-fought game. I think they bounce back nicely in this one, but don’t be fooled by the fact that they’re playing the Bucs. Tampa Bay has won five in a row and they may be the hottest team in the NFL right now. This one will be close, right up until Dan Bailey gets that home-field bounce off the crossbar he didn’t get last week in New York. Prescott will play better and it wouldn’t surprise me if Elliott ran the ball 30 times this week. This feels like a game where the Cowboys get back to basics and execute better.