By Yusuf Nakhooda
Week 14 of the NFL season will begin with a game between the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears that could have major playoff implications in the NFC. Both teams are 6-6 and find themselves in the national spotlight for the second consecutive Thursday. Besides sitting at .500 with a month to play in the regular season, both teams have dealt with injuries and struggles on both sides of the ball, while each head coach finds himself under the microscope.
Even though they have lost three of their past five games, the Cowboys remain in first place in the NFC East thanks in large part to the struggles of their divisional rivals. Dallas has a tough closing month ahead, with games against the Rams (home), Eagles (away), and Washington (home) remaining. The Rams are also fighting for a playoff spot, while the Eagles remain in the NFC East hunt despite losing three in a row and sitting two games below .500.
The Bears have won three of their past four but still trail the Vikings (8-4) by two games for the second wild-card spot. Chicago also will have to play its best football of the season if it wants to have any chance of making the playoffs with road games against Minnesota and the NFC North-leading Packers on tap as well as a Week 16 "Sunday Night Football" date with reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
As usual here are three things to watch as to how this game might unfold.
1.) Defense could decide this game
Even during Dallas' recent skid, the defense has kept the Cowboys in most of the games. Last week's disappointing 26-15 home loss to Buffalo on Thanksgiving is Dallas' only loss by more than 10 points thus far. Two weeks ago up in New England, the Cowboys limited Tom Brady and the Patriots to 282 total yards and a single touchdown. In its last five games, Dallas has held the opposition (Giants, Vikings, Lions, Patriots, and Bills) to 12 total fourth-quarter points. Rest assured, the Cowboys will be ready to take it to a Bears offense that ranks 29th in total offense (281.8 ypg) and 27th in scoring offense (17.7 ppg).Chicago enters this game fourth in the NFL in scoring defense (17.3 ppg) and seventh in total defense (319.7 ypg, one spot ahead of Dallas). The defense also could get a big boost if defensive end Akiem Hicks is able to return. Hicks is back at practice for the first time since dislocating his elbow in a Week 5 loss to Oakland in London. There's no guarantee that he will be cleared to play, but Chicago would undoubtedly love to have him against the league's top offense (432.8 ypg). The Bears also have been without linebacker Danny Trevathan, who also has been sidelined by an elbow injury.
Since losing Hicks in October, Chicago has not held up as well against the run. For the season, the Bears are seventh in rushing defense (97.5 ypg), but have allowed 107.9 yards on the ground per game since their Week 6 bye. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is sixth with 990 rushing yards, another reason why defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano can't wait to get Hicks back on the field.
2.Quarterbacks will decide the outcome
Dak Prescott and Mitchell Tribusky figure to get plenty of camera time and attention from the broadcasters on Thursday. Both have received their share of criticism during this season, but it's hard to point the finger at either signal-caller during their teams' recent stretches.
Although he has cooled off from a red-hot start to the season, Prescott has put together impressive numbers in 2019. He leads the league in passing with 3,788 yards and is tied for third with 23 touchdown passes. While Dallas has lost three of its past four games, Prescott has averaged 352.0 passing yards during that stretch with eight TDs and three interceptions. He didn't put up huge numbers (19-of-33, 212 yards, 1 interception) against New England, but the Patriots have the NFL's stingiest defense, and that game was on the road. Prescott faces another daunting challenge in trying to solve Chicago's defense.
3.) 3. Coaches in the spotlight
It's no secret that Jason Garrett could be coaching for his job. Dallas' recent slide has only increased the heat, a point driven home by owner Jerry Jones' recent comments. But the reality is that the Cowboys can stay in first place in the NFC East with a win on Thursday and still have a head-to-head game with Philadelphia remaining. Dallas still controls its own destiny, and it's easy to see the team rediscovering its winning form.
On the other sideline, while Matt Nagy's job security doesn't appear to be an issue, it's been quite the fall from grace for the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. To his credit, Nagy has taken the blame for his team's struggles, especially on offense, as his game-planning and play-calling have both come under heavy scrutiny. Minnesota's loss on Monday to Seattle gives the Bears an opportunity to narrow the gap in the standings, but that's only if both sides of the ball do their part on Thursday night. And with games against a trio of projected playoff teams (Packers, Chiefs, Vikings) remaining, Nagy will have several opportunities to show his coaching acumen during the final month of the season.
The simple fact is both teams need a win on Thursday night, even if Dallas has been skidding recently while Chicago has started to turn things around a bit. The Bears have a tougher road ahead, as they currently trail Minnesota by two games for the second wild-card spot. But the Cowboys can't afford the possibility of falling into a first-place tie in the NFC East with the Eagles either.
Dallas appears to have a rather sizeable advantage when it comes to quarterback, running back, and offensive line. As reliable as Chicago's defense has been this season, unless the Bears can slow down both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, chances are the Cowboys will find a way to end their losing streak.
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 24 Chicago Bears 17
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