NFL Winners and Losers, late games: NFC East champion Cowboys in a much better place

A few weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys had a problem. They are not a great road team and they were looking at their entire playoff path being outside of Texas. They needed the Philadelphia Eagles to collapse to win the NFC East.

The wild-card path might work for some teams, but it was probably not going to turn out well for the 2023 Cowboys.

At some point, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should write thank you cards to all of the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals’ upset win over the Eagles in Week 17 opened the door for the Cowboys to steal the NFC East title, and Dallas took advantage of that. A 38-10 win over the Washington Commanders in the regular-season finale not only clinched the NFC East but it changed the entire outlook for the Cowboys’ postseason.

The Cowboys are the No. 2 seed in the NFC after the win. That means they either are going to their first NFC championship game since the end of the 1995 season, or someone is winning at Dallas where the Cowboys have been phenomenal most of the season.

Jayron Kearse of the Dallas Cowboys reacts after a turnover against the Commanders. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Jayron Kearse of the Dallas Cowboys reacts after a turnover against the Commanders. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

There’s still the issue of the San Francisco 49ers, who are the No. 1 seed and blasted Dallas in a meeting earlier this season. But the Cowboys don’t have to deal with that for awhile, if at all. It’s not like a No. 1 seed has never been upset in the divisional round. Either way, the Cowboys’ entire playoff outlook changed over the past two weeks.

Dallas went 8-0 at home and 4-5 on the road with some extreme splits. Before Sunday, they had a +172-point differential at home and were -6 on the road. The Cowboys are an elite team at home and below average on the road. It’s hard to explain but impossible to deny.

That’s not a worry for a while. The next time the Cowboys play on the road would be the NFC championship game at the earliest.

Sunday’s win wasn’t that easy. The Commanders led 10-7 in the second quarter before the Cowboys finally got it together and pulled away. A blocked punt in the third quarter, after CeeDee Lamb scored to give the Cowboys a 28-10 lead, practically sealed the division title for Dallas.

Dak Prescott threw four touchdown passes. Even though it ended up being a lopsided win, playing even for much of the first half against a Commanders team that was 4-12 coming in highlighted that the Cowboys are a different team on the road.

The Cowboys have had big seasons before, only to have crushing playoff losses. Getting the No. 2 seed doesn’t ensure Dallas won’t have a disappointing playoff loss again. But for this Cowboys team, it’s good news to be starting their journey at home.

Here are the winners and losers from the late games of Week 18 (there were plenty of winners and losers from the early games, as well):

WINNERS

Antonio Pierce: The only thing left for Pierce is to see if Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis respects the job he did as interim head coach, or if Davis can’t help himself from hiring a new, bright, shiny toy.

That shiny toy is probably coaching in the College Football Playoff title game Monday, but regardless of Jim Harbaugh’s NFL intentions, Pierce has made a great claim for the Raiders’ full-time coaching job. Las Vegas went 5-4 under Pierce, closing out the season with a 27-14 win over the Denver Broncos. The Raiders looked like an entirely different team, which says a lot about old coach Josh McDaniels, but it reflects well on Pierce, too.

Raiders players like Davante Adams stumped for Pierce to be hired as the full-time coach this past week. Now everyone waits to see what Davis will do.

Carson Wentz: The Los Angeles Rams’ win over the San Francisco 49ers felt like the most meaningless game of the day, with both teams resting starters before the playoffs.

It wasn’t meaningless for Wentz.

Wentz, getting his first start of the season, led a late touchdown drive and threw a two-point conversion to help lead the Rams to a 21-20 win.

Wentz was unsigned all year until mid-November, when the Rams picked him up. He had 163 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. He was an MVP candidate many years ago but is now on a different phase of his career. Every opportunity is a big one, and he did just fine with his Week 18 audition against the 49ers.

Geno Smith: In the end it didn’t matter to the playoff picture that the Seattle Seahawks won. The Green Bay Packers’ win over the Chicago Bears eliminated the Seahawks from the postseason.

But the Seahawks have to be pleased with their effort. Smith hit a 34-yard pass to Tyler Lockett to give the Seahawks a late lead, then the Cardinals missed a field goal as time expired and Seattle won, 21-20.

There will be questions in the offseason about Smith and the Seahawks’ long-term plan at quarterback. But on Sunday a comeback win was a nice way for the Seahawks and Smith to end the season, even if it didn’t result in a playoff berth.

LOSERS

Philadelphia Eagles: Where to even start?

The Eagles were still technically alive for the NFC East championship on Sunday, and the door was open for a while as the Cowboys struggled with the Commanders. And the Eagles decided to hit rock bottom instead.

Following up a horrible collapse against the Cardinals in Week 17 that caused them to lose control of the NFC East title, the Eagles were embarrassed 27-10 by a New York Giants team whose playoff hopes ended months ago. The Eagles trailed 24-0 at halftime. Even worse, receiver A.J. Brown left with a knee injury and quarterback Jalen Hurts was pulled after injuring his middle finger.

The Eagles were once 10-1, then lost five of their last six. The Giants loss was particularly appalling. It’s not the way Philly wanted to enter the postseason.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - JANUARY 07: Jalen Hurts #1 of the Philadelphia Eagles is tackled by Bobby Okereke #58 of the New York Giants during the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on January 07, 2024 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are stumbling into the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 5 seed. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Justin Fields: The big story from the Green Bay Packers’ 17-9 win over the Chicago Bears was that the Packers clinched a playoff spot. But it was important for other reasons.

Fields had a chance to leave a big final impression before the Bears make an enormous decision at quarterback. And he didn’t do all that much in a key game against Chicago’s biggest rival. Fields had 148 passing yards, just 27 rushing yards and the Bears didn’t score a touchdown against a Packers defense that has allowed some huge games to other quarterbacks recently.

The Bears have the first overall draft pick, and most people think they’ll draft Caleb Williams or Drake Maye and trade Fields. But Fields played well enough in the second half of the season to make it an interesting conversation.

One game won’t completely change the Bears’ mind. But the final impression by Fields wasn’t great.

Giff Smith and Easton Stick: Smith and Stick had short-term opportunities to shine. They probably wanted one win out of their time as interim head coach and interim quarterback of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Smith, taking over for fired Brandon Staley, lost all three of his games. Stick lost all four of his starts in place of an injured Justin Herbert. The Chargers had a chance Sunday but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, 13-12. The big play was a Stick turnover in the first half that was returned by the Chiefs for a touchdown. The Chargers couldn’t punch in a touchdown in the fourth quarter, settled for a field goal and that allowed the Chiefs to come back with a field goal of their own for the lead.

The Chargers enter a long offseason. They didn’t even get the small bump from a season-ending win against a Chiefs team resting most of its key players.

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