The “soft” part of the Dallas Cowboys’ schedule has proven to be anything but easy.
In the last two weeks, the Cowboys have squeezed out wins over teams with losing records in Indianapolis and Houston, and they again face yet another losing team on Sunday as they hit the road to face the 5-8 Jacksonville Jaguars.
In most other divisions, a 5-8 record this late in the season would be a death knell, but in the AFC South led by the 7-6 Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville is still very much in the thick of its division race.
Meanwhile, Dallas (10-3) needs a win to keep within two games of the Philadelphia Eagles (12-1), who are dominating the NFL this season and are currently one of the favorite teams to make a Super Bowl appearance.
Jacksonville has been surging recently, earning a win last week over the division-leading Titans. The Jaguars have gone 3-3 over the previous six games with wins over the Las Vegas Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, and the Titans last week.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is emerging as the franchise QB Jacksonville believed he would become when they selected him No.1 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Against Tennessee, Lawrence hit touchdown passes of 12 yards, 20 yards, and 21 yards while also running a touchdown from one yard out.
Lawrence has passed for over 3,200 yards this season, netting 20 touchdowns against just six interceptions to give the Jags a chance in every game. Except for a 40-14 beatdown at the hands of the Detroit Lions in Week 13, every Jacksonville loss this season has been by one score or less.
The Cowboys come into the game nursing a four-game win streak, with their last loss coming in an overtime defeat on the road in Green Bay back in mid-November.
Since that loss, the Cowboys have employed a two-back set, splitting carries equally between Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott to open up opportunities in the offense that could be even more explosive this week with the addition of veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Rumors are that Hilton worked out for the Cowboys Monday and showed the athletic training staff enough about his health and ability that the team cut the session short. Hilton is likely to play Sunday, adding a new wrinkle to a receiving corps headlined by CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and James Washington, who returned from injury last week.
The Cowboys’ offense is loaded with weapons, but the defensive unit has put the team solidly in the postseason conversation. A linebacker group that includes Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, and Anthony Barr supports a line that has dominated in pass rushing.
This week, Dallas signed Andrew Rush at nose tackle to compensate for the loss of Johnathan Hankins, and it is possible that Rush could see his first action with the team on Sunday.
Conversely, Jacksonville’s defense has been a weak spot. The unit has generated just 23 sacks this season, 29th out of 32 teams. Weakening the Jaguars’ defense will be the absence of rookie first-overall pick outside linebacker Travon Walker, who is currently questionable for the game with an ankle injury and is listed as day-to-day by the team.
Without Walker, the Jaguars’ pass rush is significantly less dangerous, opening opportunities for Cowboys QB Dak Prescott to make plays in the intermediate and deep areas of the field.
On paper, this game should be a slam dunk for Dallas, but the previous two weeks of nail-biters against similarly disadvantaged teams have shown that anything can happen on any given Sunday.