The Dallas Cowboys' regular season could not have gone much better. Behind rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, both long-shot MVP candidates, the Cowboys won 13 games for just the third time in team history. The club's defense, maligned for most of the last three seasons, has come on strong in the last month of the regular season, racking up 16 sacks in their last five games after totaling just 18 in its first 11 contests.
Prescott is healthy. Elliott is rested and healthy after getting the day off during the Cowboys' meaningless season finale at the Eagles on Sunday. Many of the team's long-term injured look to be on the verge of returning.
The Cowboys have two weeks off, the NFC's first playoff seed and won't have to leave DFW to lock up a trip to the Super Bowl. They are sitting pretty, but adversity, as it always does in the NFL, lurks just out of sight.
When the Cowboys' playoff opener kicks off a little before 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15, the Cowboys will be taking on one of three opponents — the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants or the Detroit Lions — depending on the outcomes of the Wild Card games this weekend. Because the NFL reseeds after each round of the playoffs, the Cowboys will play the lowest seeded team to survive the playoffs first weekend.
If Detroit, the sixth seed, beats Seattle on Saturday night, the Cowboys will play the Lions. If the Seahawks prevail, the Cowboys will get the winner of Giants vs. Packers on Sunday afternoon.
Each of Dallas' potential match-ups brings its own discomforts. All three would be rematches. If the Cowboys face the Giants, they'll be tasked with scoring on a defense that, in addition to being one of the best in the league, has stymied the Cowboys' offense twice so far in 2016. The Packers are playing nothing like the team the Cowboys beat handily in Green Bay in October and the Lions successfully traded punches with the Cowboys' potent offense during the first half of their game on Dec. 26.
None of that's to say the Cowboys don't have a chance to advance. They'll be favored against any of the three teams they might play and will enjoy distinct advantages against each that they didn't have during the regular season.
If they get the Giants, the Cowboys will get a chance to avenge two of their three regular season losses. They'll be at home, away from the environment that seemed to spook the Cowboys coaching staff into a far too conservative game plan during the team's Dec. 11 game in New Jersey. Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing despite having his work load limited throughout the regular season, will face no such limits during the postseason. Unlike in December, he won't be replaced on third downs or in the two-minute offense by Lance Dunbar this time around. Prescott and offense coordinator Scott Linehan will have two games of tape and two weeks of preparation to make sure everything goes right that can go right against the Giants this time. With as bad as the Giants offense is — they haven't scored more than 19 points since the Sunday after Thanksgiving — Prescott, Elliott and Linehan don't have to be great to beat the Giants. If they can score 21 points — a decidedly pedestrian result for this offense — that'll be good enough against the Giants.
The Packers are the Cowboys' toughest potential match-up. After quarterback Aaron Rodgers' promise that they would "run the table" following a 4-6 start, the Packers did just that, re-establishing themselves as an offensive juggernaut. They are no longer the team the Cowboys handily knocked off 30-16 on Oct. 16. In order to compete with Rodgers' potent passing attack, the Cowboys will need effective play from cornerback Morris Claiborne, who's missed the second half of the regular season with an avulsion fracture. Claiborne is the Cowboys' best cover corner, and they'll need him to cover the Packers' talented receiving corps. Conversely, the Packers' secondary is considerably banged up, and won't have a bye week to get everyone healthy. They'll be forced to pick their poison against the Cowboys: Stack the box against Elliott and risk Dez Bryant running wild against their back up cornerbacks, or give their corners help and watch Elliott make quick work of their front seven. Cowboys vs. Packers might be a match-up best suited for the NFC Championship, but it would be an epic divisional round game, too.
While the Cowboys would never admit that they "want" one of their potential opponents over the other two, the Lions present the clearest path to victory. Even with their season on the line in week 16, the Lions couldn't stop themselves from getting walloped 42-21 by the Cowboys in Arlington, even though the Cowboys had nothing for which to play. The Lions' defense can't handle the Cowboys' offense and the Lions' offense isn't very good, either. Detroit was outscored 358-346 for the season and is in the playoffs largely thanks to consistently getting lucky in close games — the Lions have won exactly one game by more than a touchdown so far this year.
Should the Cowboys make it past their first weekend in the playoffs, they'll play in their first NFC Championship game since Jan. 14, 1996, on Jan. 22.