Loss to Cardinals raises questions on whether Cowboys can handle playoff atmosphere

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Less than 30 minutes before kickoff, things were looking great for the Dallas Cowboys.

The four-win New York Jets were 2 yards away from finishing off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and giving the Cowboys an inside track to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Then quarterback Tom Brady happened (or maybe the Jets happened) and Tampa Bay won. Three hours and six minutes later, the Cowboys were looking at the No. 4 seed after a 25-22 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

The change was as quick as the temperature drop on Saturday in Dallas/Fort Worth that saw it go from 70 degrees to barely above freezing in about four hours.

And yet the Cowboys’ response after the loss was more about the perceived poor officiating than an opportunity lost.

“That’s the type of team we’ll be playing every time in the playoffs,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said of Arizona.

Jones is right, but can the Cowboys beat that kind of team?

The Cowboys have played seven games this season against teams currently with a winning record. They are 3-4 in those games. The last team they beat that currently has a winning record is the 10-6 New England Patriots, who fell to 2-4 after their overtime loss to Dallas on Oct. 17.

The last team the Cowboys beat with a winning record at the time they played them was Week 4 against the 3-0 Carolina Panthers, who are now 5-11.

“I saw nothing about the way that individual play or team play that would shake your confidence,” Jones said. “I saw what can happen to you when you play a playoff team and they are making some good things happen.”

Said quarterback Dak Prescott, “Not discouraged. Definitely disappointed we didn't come away with the win. But not discouraged. I know the team that we have, what we got. We simply didn't get it done as a team. Starting with myself. Got to be better. All of us. We got to look at ourselves in the mirror. And find a way to come out with a win in a game like that.”

The question bears repeating: Can the Cowboys win a game like that?

They've lost the past three games they've played against teams with a winning record: at the Kansas City Chiefs and home against the Las Vegas Raiders and Cardinals. Next week, they play the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Cowboys entered Sunday with a four-game winning streak, but those four wins came against teams with a combined record of 18-30: the New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team (twice) and New York Giants.

Now, the only way the Cowboys can move up from the No. 4 seed is to beat the Eagles and have the Buccaneers lose to the Panthers (doubtful) and the Los Angeles Rams lose to the San Francisco 49ers (not as doubtful) or the Cardinals lose to the Seattle Seahawks (let’s call it unlikely).

A three-way tie would give the Cowboys the No. 2 seed based on their better conference record.

All of this would have been so much easier had the Cowboys just won Sunday.

But the offense was spotty at best, converting just 3 of 11 third-down chances, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry (albeit hurt by some holding calls) and a far too inaccurate Prescott, at least until the third quarter. The defense could not get a stop for a good portion of the game (the Cardinals were a combined 9-of-18 on third and fourth down) and could not get a takeaway when it needed one. Jayron Kearse’s dropped interception in the end zone in the third quarter should have been a sign it was not the Cowboys’ day.

The special teams contributed a missed 43-yard field goal attempt from Greg Zuerlein and allowed the completion of a 23-yard pass on a fake punt as part of a 91-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter

“I wasn’t good enough today,” said coach Mike McCarthy, who burned a timeout after Arizona baited the Cowboys into thinking they were going for it on fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 8 in the third quarter. “We weren’t good enough today and that’s why the result is what it is.”

Had the Cowboys had a timeout, they could have challenged a potential fumble before the two-minute warning, trailing by three points. Instead, they had to watch the Cardinals burn the final 4:42 of the game for their second win in as many seasons at AT&T Stadium.

In two weeks the Cardinals could very well be back at AT&T Stadium for the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Do the Cowboys want to see Arizona again?

“Damn right,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “They came out and gave us their best shot tonight, we came out and we competed and, shoot, we are just going to get better from it. If we see them again, they are going to get it all from us.”

Prescott hopes to see Arizona again, too.

“I mean to get to where we go we’ve got to play the best,” he said. “Obviously this team right here gave us their best shot and we came up three points short. If we start this tournament off against them, we’re excited about it. I mean, we’re excited about just where we’re heading in the direction this team is going to go. Whoever it is, line them up. We’ll play here. We’ll play at their place, their backyard, whatever. I’ve got a lot of confidence in this team.”