Cowboys clinch NFC East; Giants up next in meaningless finale

Jason Garrett and the Cowboys are in the playoffs. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys (9-6) defeated the Tampa Buccaneers (5-10) by the score of 27-20 and clinched the NFC East Division title which clinches the fourth seed in the playoffs. This will be their second time to the playoffs in the last three years and is also the second time winning the division in that same time frame.

Even though Dallas got the win, there is still much to be improved if the Cowboys want to put together a long playoff run. Once again they continued with bad play calling in key spots and failed to get the ball to their play makers. The good thing was the defense played great and was a big reason why they were able to pull off the win.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was 20 of 25 for 161 yards, one touchdown, and NO turnovers. He was also able to utilize his legs and ran in for a 7-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. He only targeted receiver Amari Cooper five times and he caught four balls for 20 yards. He needs to attempt to get him the ball down the field more often instead of the short routes he has been running the last few games.

NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott had 18 carries for 85 yards and five catches for 24 yards. It was the third game in a row that he failed to get into the end zone which surely hurt a lot of fantasy teams out there. That will have to change for them to win in the playoffs.

The Cowboys defense played excellent and was the reason they won. They sacked Jameis Winston three times and caused two turnovers, both of which were fumbles. One was recovered and returned by linebacker Jaylon Smith for a 69 yard touchdown and the other was recovered on the Tampa 4 yard line that led to another touchdown. Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith accounted for 25 tackles (Esch 11 solo and Smith 5 solo). The Buccaneers running game was held to 63 yards but they did have some success through the air. They outgained the Cowboys by over 150 yards but the turnovers were the difference.

Dallas is locked into the 4 seed of the NFC playoffs which makes the regular season finale against the Giants meaningless. I would expect them to rest most of their starters to prepare for the playoffs.

Players to Watch

  1. Ezekiel Elliott (Running Back): Will probably not play much this upcoming week but is currently the NFL's leading rusher and is 183 yards ahead of Todd Gurley so it could be interesting to watch the race.
  2. Leighton Vander Esch (Linebacker): Is in the running for defensive rookie of the year and is currently the NFL's 3rd leading tackler with 131. He has more than surpassed his predecessor Sean Lee and is clearly the Cowboy's best defensive player.
  3. Michael Gallup (Wide Receiver): This rookie led the team last week with 53 yards receiving and a touchdown. He looks to have caught up to the speed of the NFL and has been coming on as of late. With Dallas likely to rest their stars, Gallup could be in for a large role on Sunday.

The Dallas Cowboys (9-6) will be taking on the New York Giants (5-10) on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Kickoff is set for noon Central Time. With neither team having much to play for, I am not sure how good of a game it will be.

If you have any fantasy players, the only must start players are:

Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott (RB), Amari Cooper (WR)

Giants: Saquon Barkely (RB)

For you gamblers out there, the Cowboys are +6 and the over/under is 41.5. I don't see any way you can play the Cowboys this week without knowing how long their star players will play if at all and the Giants have been playing hard the last few weeks. I would stay away from this one.

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Which pitcher should start Game 2 for Houston? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Another magnificent Astros’ regular season is complete, all 106 wins worth. The 162 game marathon truly determines the best teams in a given year. Now it’s the postseason sprint where a really good four weeks is what it takes for any of the twelve teams hoping for autumn glory. The path is notably easier for the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves who earned byes past the new best-of-three Wild Card series. Since the first Wild Card was introduced in 1995 there have been 27 postseasons, so that makes 54 World Series spots over those 27 years. Only 35 percent of the time (19 of 54) has the team with the best record in its league advanced to the World Series. In only seven of the 27 years of the Wild Card era has the team with the best record in the Major Leagues gone on to win the tournament. This year the Astros are obviously the best team in the American League. The Dodgers obviously are the class of the National League. The likelihood that we get another Astros-Dodgers World Series matchup five years after the first? Definitely less than 50-50. Maybe not even 30-70.

Should Framber Valdez start Game 2?

After getting rocked in consecutive starts following his record 25 consecutive “quality starts” streak, Framber Valdez had a strong peace of mind five innings no runs 10 strikeouts showing in the season finale Wednesday. For most of the season it was quite evident that Framber would/should slot behind Justin Verlander as the Astros’ number two playoff starter. But should he? Things have recently changed. On season body of work Framber is an easy call, but as the Astros can attest to from two of the last three World Series outcomes, teams don’t win in October (and early November) based on their body of work. They win on what they do in October (and early November). Cristian Javier has been much better down the stretch. He’s been darn near untouchable, firing 23 shutout innings with just six hits allowed over his last four starts. Lance McCullers also factors into the equation.

Game two is at Minute Maid Park. For his career McCullers has been excellent at MMP (2.67 earned run average) and not at all trustworthy on the road (4.43 ERA). He made only eight starts this season but the form chart held: 1.50 ERA at home, 3.57 away. Framber meanwhile was notably better on the road. 3.54 ERA in Houston, a sparkling 2.27 everywhere else. Javier had the most even splits, 2.26 home, 2.84 road.

Remember that with the TV-dictated schedule, if the series goes to a game four (on the road) Verlander would have four days rest if the choice was to use him trying to closeout if up two-one, or stay alive if down 2-1. Using Verlander in game four would mean if a decisive game five (at Minute Maid Park) was necessary the fourth different starting pitcher would be needed.

So…there is no definitive right answer, but I’d go Javier at home in game two, Framber on the road in game three. Then if up 2-1, McCullers in game four hoping to win then and have Verlander set for game one of the League Championship Series. If Verlander went in game four or five of the Division Series he’d be unavailable until game three of the LCS, and that would be his only LCS start unless brought back on three days rest if there was a game seven. Verlander in game four would have McCullers ready for game five, at home.

Path of least resistance

The Astros await the Blue Jays-Mariners survivor. There is no huge gap between the two but if the Astros I slightly lean toward preferring to face the Mariners. The Blue Jays’ batting order is way more potent than what the M’s put forth, it’s a better lineup than the Astros have. On the other hand, the Mariners have the better pitching and defense. Tiebreaker? No customs to deal with in Seattle!

Some of this is on Dusty Baker

Ultimately it falls on players to perform when called upon, but it seems reasonable to cast some blame Dusty Baker’s way for the generally lousy production of trade deadline acquisitions Christian Vazquez and Trey Mancini. Upon arrival Vazquez was having a substantially better season than Martin Maldonado, Mancini notably better relative to the tumbled over the hill Yuli Gurriel. Baker opted to ride the incumbents more than use the newbies. That could not have helped Vazquez and Mancini. Mancini looks broken at the plate, hitting into more double plays than he has hits over his last 45 at bats (six GIDP, four hits). With Maldonado and Gurriel obviously to be used as the primary if not every game starters, the most notable lineup decision to be made is who is the designated hitter (or plays left field if Yordan Alvarez is DHing). Aledmys Diaz looked to be making the best case, but went one for 19 to finish the season.

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