Technically, a “must-win” game is one in which a loss mathematically eliminates a team from playoff contention. More often than not, though, we label a game as a ‘must-win’ when losing would cripple a team’s playoff hopes. In that sense, Sunday’s matchup with the undefeated Atlanta Falcons is absolutely a must-win for the Dallas Cowboys.
Will Jason Garrett attack Atlanta’s defensive weakness?
Only one team in the NFL has allowed greater rushing efficiency than the Falcons. They’ve yielded 5.1 YPC, primarily because they sit in zone coverage and let offenses run the ball. The strength of the Cowboys certainly isn’t their rushing attack, so it will be interesting to see whether or not Garrett tries to get something going on the ground. Make no mistake about it—the Cowboys won’t win this game without effective passing—but this is one of those contests in which early rushing efficiency could pay off later in the game.
How will the Cowboys control John Abraham?
Abraham has been one of the most underrated pass rushers in the NFL for years. His 2012 pressure rate of 8.4 percent is comparable to DeMarcus Ware’s 9.2 percent rate. Abraham lines up all over the Falcons’ defense, rushing from the right defensive end spot on just 58.6 percent of snaps. That means he’ll face off against both Tyron Smith and Doug Free on numerous occasions, and he can (and will) win those battles. Look for the Cowboys to perhaps motion a bit more than usual—they’ve done so on fewer than one-fifth of their 2012 snaps after motioning on well over one-third of their snaps over the past three years—in an effort to allow a tight end to at least chip Abraham.
Will the Cowboys’ defensive game plan be the same as last week?
The ‘Boys really did an amazing job defending Eli Manning and the Giants this year, holding Manning to 6.43 YPA. With an outstanding quarterback and two elite receivers, the Falcons’ offense is very much like that of the Giants. Thus, I think you’ll see the Cowboys play the same Cover 2 shell they played on 75.2 percent of their defensive snaps versus the Giants this season.
Cover 2, and especially Cover 2 Man-Under, is built to limit the potential for big plays. The Cowboys will most likely sit back with two deep safeties and dare the Falcons to play to their weakness—running the ball.