The Week 17 game between the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys could serve as a potential playoff preview. Both teams earned NFC postseason spots last week while the Cowboys (11-4) clinched the NFC East, their first division title since 2018. They enter this weekend as the No. 2 seed with a chance to catch the Green Bay Packers for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cardinals (10-5) hope to put a wrench in those plans, stopping their three-game losing streak that's left them trailing the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West. One of the NFL's most prolific offenses, Arizona put up just 28 points combined the past two weeks while several of their stars remain hampered by injuries.
Despite their recent slump, the Cardinals remain the No. 5 seed and can’t fall any lower than No. 6. Despite any hope of a first-round bye fading away, recapturing momentum is key for a team that started the year with seven straight wins. A victory against the Cowboys could cement them as the top wild-card team while dropping Dallas to the No. 4 seed, setting up a 4-5 matchup between them just a few short weeks from now.
Can the Cowboys keep the good times rolling after a season-best 56 points scored last week? Or will a Cardinals team with the NFL's best road record (7-1) vanquish their December demons?
Arizona (10-5) at Dallas (11-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Who's healthy and who's not?
It's unfortunate that's where we start this preview 19 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the Omicron variant sweeping the country, several NFL teams have been swept up in the spike in cases, and Arizona is no exception.
Among those players currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list: two of their top outside linebackers, Markus Golden and Devon Kennard. Kennard landed there Wednesday, meaning he's guaranteed to miss Sunday’s game despite the reduced quarantine time from 10 days to five after a positive test.
Golden, along with cornerback Breon Borders, still has a chance of being able to play in Sunday's contest. But there's uncertainty over who could be next with this many cases seeping into the locker room.
"It seems like a new guy pops up every day," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. "You kind of cross your fingers and hope."
It's a gut punch for a team already dealing with several major injuries. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is out for the rest of the regular season after tearing an MCL; running back James Conner (heel) and wide receiver Rondale Moore (ankle) missed the Christmas Day loss against the Colts.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are in far better shape after losing head coach Mike McCarthy, among others, earlier this month. They have just two practice squad players in COVID-19 protocols while almost the entire roster is healthy. Even Pro Bowl offensive tackle Tyron Smith, hampered by an ankle injury the past few weeks, appears to be in good shape to play on Sunday.
2. Is the Cowboys' offense back for good? Or just a one-hit wonder?
The team itself sure seems to think so. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game of the year against Washington, throwing more touchdown passes (four) than he had in the previous three weeks combined. He was the catalyst for a record-tying 42 first-half points last Sunday night as the Cowboys rolled to a 56-14 rout, their most points scored in a game since 1980.
"I thought [Prescott] was in total control," McCarthy said. "His numbers in the first half reflect that. Had some shot opportunities, was patient with the check-downs."
Prescott spread the love, throwing touchdown passes to a receiver (Amari Cooper), tight end (Dalton Schultz), running back (Ezekiel Elliott), and offensive tackle (Terence Steele). He kept the ball moving while the run game struggled a bit, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry while posting zero rushes over 13 yards.
It'll be a test for the Cardinals' fifth-ranked passing defense, allowing just 210.7 yards per game. They've yet to allow a 300-yard passer all season while racking up 39 sacks, good for ninth in the NFL. With Golden potentially out, the play of Chandler Jones (9.5 sacks) will be crucial as the Cardinals look to put pressure on Prescott and keep him off balance.
3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Cowboys' defense continues to shine, leading the league with 33 takeaways. Trevon Diggs tied a team record last week with his 11th interception; teammate DeMarcus Lawrence also impressed, taking one to the house with a pick-six of Washington’s Taylor Heinicke.
Wrestling the ball away from the Cardinals will be a stiffer challenge. Their three fumbles lost are the fewest in the NFL through 16 weeks while 14 giveaways overall rank fourth. Even during this three-game losing streak, quarterback Kyler Murray has coughed the ball up just three times and remained composed despite a sputtering offense.
But the few mistakes Murray has made? They've been costly. Two interceptions against the Rams turned into 14 points, the difference in a heartbreaking 30-23 defeat. The next week, a third-quarter Murray interception after the defense recovered a fumble led to a touchdown that put the Lions game out of reach. And a safety given up in the Colts game left the Cardinals down two possessions instead of one in the fourth quarter, a Christmas deficit that proved too much to make up.
Murray is the one with the unproven track record in Year 3. The Cowboys' defense will be hungry to exploit that.
On paper, it seems like this one's a little lopsided. The Cowboys are riding a four-game winning streak, fresh off the high of a division title, and have seemingly put their broken offense back together. But keep in mind all four victories have come against teams with a losing record. A closer look shows Dallas is just 3-4 against teams above .500, losing at home to the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders. Inconsistency has plagued them throughout the year.
The Cardinals, despite their limited offensive attack, are far better than the three good teams Dallas has beaten (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New England). It's hard to fathom a four-game losing streak for what was the NFC's best team for the better part of three months. Look for tight end Zach Ertz to play a key role against his former NFC East rival as Arizona finds a way to pull the upset.
In a year where no good team stays on top of the mountain for long, would you expect any less?
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Cowboys 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.