Cowboys' strong defense takes center stage in physical playoff win over Seahawks

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Dak Prescott gets all the attention. Ezekiel Elliott sells more jerseys. The trade for Amari Cooper got the headlines. Most football fans know about the Dallas Cowboys‘ offensive line.

But the offensive stars weren’t the main reason the Cowboys won the NFC East, and they aren’t the reason Dallas is moving onto the divisional round. A somewhat underrated defense might start to get its due after what it did to the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night.

Dallas’ defense was stifling for most of Saturday night’s 24-22 wild-card playoff win. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson performed some magic acts, as he always does, but for most of the game the Seahawks couldn’t sustain drives. When the Cowboys took a 24-14 lead with 2:08 left, the Seahawks had just nine first downs and 224 yards. Seattle scored with 1:18 left and got a two-point conversion, but kicker Sebastian Janikowski was out with a leg injury and couldn’t try an onside kick. Punter Michael Dickson popped up a drop kick that had no chance of being recovered by Seattle, and Dallas won.

The Cowboys will play at the Los Angeles Rams next week if the Philadelphia Eagles win the other NFC wild-card game on Sunday, and Dallas will play at the New Orleans Saints if the Chicago Bears win on Sunday. The Rams or Saints won’t have an easy time. The Cowboys have been pretty good on defense this season, even if they don’t get a ton of credit for it.

Dallas Cowboys Dallas Leighton Vander Esch (55) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate a defensive play against the Seattle Seahawks. (AP)
Dallas Cowboys Dallas Leighton Vander Esch (55) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate a defensive play against the Seattle Seahawks. (AP)

Cowboys defense stars in hard-fought playoff win

Dallas’ defense has been steadily improving. The Cowboys invested in the defensive line, and it paid off with DeMarcus Lawrence and, finally, Randy Gregory. The secondary got some help through the draft, and it has come a long way. The star of the show on defense is the linebackers. Jaylon Smith, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, when he’s healthy and plays, are fast and physical.

Everything was on display against the Seahawks. Seattle employs an old-school approach, choosing to rely heavily on the run even with Wilson as its quarterback, and the Cowboys ate that up. Seattle rushed for 73 yards on 24 attempts, as the Seahawks kept stubbornly running the ball. A Dallas front seven that has controlled offenses most of the season gave up very little to the Seahawks. Seattle’s offense relied on a few big plays from Wilson to Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin, and the Seahawks got little else.

Dallas’ defense doesn’t get the accolades that Chicago’s defense gets, and it doesn’t have the individual defensive stars that the Rams do. But Dallas finished in the top seven teams in yards and points allowed and didn’t allow more than 30 points in any game until a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Giants.

Many fans understood how good Dallas’ defense was long before Saturday night, especially after Dallas throttled New Orleans 13-10 in a regular-season win, and everyone else should come around after Saturday’s wild-card game.

Dallas’ offense did enough to win

With the defense controlling the game, the Cowboys didn’t need the offense to do too much.

Seattle did a great job limiting everything the Cowboys wanted to do on offense. Prescott had a nice touchdown pass to Michael Gallup late in the first half. He hit Cooper for a long, and controversial, catch to set up a go-ahead touchdown by Elliott in the fourth quarter. Cooper seemed to lose the ball when he hit the ground, and it definitely wouldn’t have been a catch last season. With the new catch rules, it stood. Some third-down penalties against Seattle on a fourth-quarter drive squeezed down the clock. A fantastic 16-yard run on third-and-14 by Prescott just before the two-minute warning set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Prescott to put the game away. It wasn’t too pretty from the Cowboys and their offense, but it worked.

Dallas might need more from its offense against the Rams or Bears in the divisional round. But the Cowboys also know their underrated defense should keep them in the game, no matter who they play.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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