Rolling Cowboys, reeling Cards meet with playoffs on horizon
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — A month ago, Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys figured to be chasing Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Now they’re both looking up at Green Bay, and the rolling Cowboys are in a better position than the reeling Cardinals in a matchup of playoff-bound teams Sunday.
Dallas (11-4) takes a four-game winning streak into its regular-season home finale with Prescott coming off a strong showing that ended a run of several mediocre games.
The Cardinals (10-5) have dropped three in a row and are 3-5 since being the NFL’s last undefeated team at 7-0. Arizona even lost control of its fate in the NFC West. The Los Angeles Rams are a game in front and tied with the Cowboys and reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, a game behind the Packers, with two to go.
“Me personally, I’m not panicking,” Murray said. “I don’t think anybody on this team is panicking. Yes, we’ve lost three in a row. The Rams lost three in a row. Everybody was counting them out. It’s not a thing where it doesn’t happen.”
Arizona clinched a playoff spot anyway after last week’s 22-16 loss to Indianapolis thanks to the Rams’ win over Minnesota. Dallas wrapped up the NFC East title on a tiebreaker an hour before beating Washington 56-14.
“We all understand what position they’re in. We understand the position we’re in,” Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said. “This is going to be a playoff-type game. We both need this game and I think you will see that Sunday.”
Murray, who is set for another homecoming after the Cardinals beat the Cowboys 38-10 last season to make him 7-0 as a starter at AT&T Stadium, didn’t have his best game against the Colts, but his 57-yard run set up a first-quarter touchdown.
The speedy Murray has always been a dual threat, but his running production has been down this season compared to 2020. He averaged about 51 yards rushing per game last season compared to 29 so far this year.
Murray is adamant that running isn’t his first option and he’d like to concentrate on using his speed to move around in the pocket and make passes. But if it’s needed, he can still turn on the jets.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that, so to be able to get out and run was fun,” Murray said. “I wish I would have scored, but it was good to get out there, break a run, see I could still do it.”
ELLIOTT’S BALL SECURITY
The loss to Arizona last year was the first game for Dallas after Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury. Knowing how much he needed to fill the void, Elliott lost two fumbles in a same game for the only time in his career.
In 24 games — and 353 carries — since, Elliott has just two fumbles.
“I would say it’s an expectation for me to protect the football, so I don’t think it’s necessarily something I should be proud of,” Elliott said. “I take pride in it, but I’m not going to give myself a pat on the back because I haven’t fumbled a lot this year.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
The Cardinals hope to have center Rodney Hudson back after the three-time Pro Bowler missed the past two games while on the COVID-19 list. Arizona is 8-2 when he’s in the lineup and 2-3 when he’s not.
“We’ve played really well when he’s been in the lineup, and hopefully he can stay in it for the duration,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I’d say more than anything just the comfort level. He is rarely wrong when he’s making his points, making his calls, and he just calms down the whole operation.”
OFFENSE, DEFENSE FIRST
While Prescott had four first-half touchdown passes in the rout of Washington as the offense got back on track, the defense recorded its club-record sixth TD of the season on star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence’s first career score. The 40-yard interception return helped Dallas build a 42-7 halftime lead.
The Cowboys lead the NFL in scoring offense (30.5 points per game) and takeaways (33). Three of the other five NFL teams to finish the season atop those two categories reached the Super Bowl. One team won it — the 1971 Cowboys.
“I think you’re seeing a team that’s more balanced,” McCarthy said. “It’s more complementary, and has the ability to win the game in all three phases. We want to be complementary football. This ain’t about statistics.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed.