The Cowboys Report

Cowboys face Bucs with playoff berth in reach

Jason Garret and the Cowboys are close to clinching. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys (8-6) lost to the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) on Sunday by the score of 23-0. It was their first loss in their last six games and it looked like they were never mentally in the game. It was probably due to the fact that even though they lost, they still have a 97.7% chance to win the NFC East according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

The Cowboys didn't have any motivation and their offense was weak. They struggled to move the ball and failed to make plays in key moments. A dropped pass, bad play calling, and turnovers were the pivotal factors that led to the loss.

Ezekiel Elliott was the lone offensive bright spot. He carried the ball 18 times for 87 yards and caught 7 passes for 41 yards. He was credited with a lost fumble on the Colt's 3 yard line but it was on a fourth and goal play where he was stopped short of the end zone and the Colts were taking over possession no matter what.

Quarterback Dak Prescott did not play well and only got the ball to superstar receiver Amari Cooper 4 times for 32 yards. He looked uncomfortable and was never allowed to settle in. He was 24 of 29 for 206 yards, NO touchdowns, and 1 interception. The Colts sacked him three times and didn't allow him to use his legs to scramble.

The Cowboys defense played hard and did their best to stay in the game but ultimately ran out of gas. They held Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck to under 200 yards passing and didn't allow him to throw any touchdowns. The problem was they were torn up on the ground. Running back Marlon Mack carried the ball 27 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Dallas is now only up one game on both the Philadelphia Eagles (7-7) and the Washington Redskins (7-7), but Dallas owns the tiebreaker over them and is essentially up two games with two left to play.

  1. Players to Watch
  1. Ezekiel Elliott (running back): Still the NFL's leading rusher and has a good chance of locking up the title this week as he will be going against Tampa Bay's 27th ranked rush defense. After the loss, I think the Cowboy offense will be looking to make a statement.
  2. Amari Cooper (Wide Receiver): Had a sub-par game last week but has a great matchup this week against the 27th ranked Buccaneer pass defense. The Cowboys should get him the ball early and often to come away with another win.
  3. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, and Jeff Heath (defensive secondary): These guys are going to have to play another great game because they will be facing the NFL's #1 passing offense which is led by star receiver Mike Evans. Evans has the ability to score any time he touches the ball and the Bucs like to throw it to him a lot anytime they are near the end zone.

The Dallas Cowboys (8-6) will be at home taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9) on Sunday afternoon. Kickoff is set for 12:00 pm CST at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX (AKA: Jerry's World). Dallas should be driven to win and lock up the NFC East and the #4 playoff seed. The only way they don't win the division is if they lose both games and either Philadelphia or Washington wins both of their games.

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

Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott (RB), Amari Cooper (WR), Dak Prescott (QB)

Buccaneers: Mike Evans (WR)

For you gamblers out there, the Cowboys are -7.5 and the over/under is 47.5. I believe the Cowboys will be looking to finalize their playoff hopes this week and basically earn a bye week in Week 17 so Dallas would be the play but I would try and get the number at 7 or less.

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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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