The Dallas Cowboys might be real – *might be*. Trusting them in the past has been a minefield of mediocrity, believing in them has backfired, overreacting to paper-based potential has been customary, but this is a team fed up with its ‘all hat and no cattle’ rep.
In a season when nobody quite looks willing to run away with it and when the occasional off day has become the in thing, forget about Week Nine’s outlier loss to the Denver Broncos. It meant little, if anything at all.
Denver subsequently fell to the Philadelphia Eagles, who had been downed 41-21 by the Cowboys in Week Three, while a confused league reigned elsewhere. The PJ Walker-quarterbacked Carolina Panthers, along with a sprinkle of Cam Newton, produced a drubbing of the Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals that had just beaten the San Francisco 49ers, who then brushed aside the Super Bowl-chasing Los Angeles Rams on Monday night.
Unwavering dominance is unfashionable in 2021. Enduring hardship and plotting an epiphanic, emphatic ‘Tom Brady sitting on the bench, staring at the ground’-style reply has become trendy. The Cowboys were beaten, beaten badly, and it might have been the best thing to happen to them all season.
Their response was not only winning against the Atlanta Falcons, but clubbing them until memory of the Denver defeat had been erased. Behold the real ‘real Cowboys’, whose substance and talent and depth has afforded them zero excuses for not being the real Cowboys they have long vied to become.
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Atlanta Falcons’ Dustin Colquitt’s punt is blocked by Cowboys defensive end Dorance Armstrong who then scrambles for a touchdown
Dallas sit 7-2 atop of the National Football Conference East with a three-game lead over the Eagles. The playoffs beckon, barring catastrophe and they could yet earn a first-round bye as the No 1 seed in light of a remaining schedule offering four favourable divisional matchups, a meeting with Trevor Siemian’s New Orleans Saints, a home clash with the fluctuating Las Vegas Raiders and a Week 17 visit from the Cardinals.
But first, come on down, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys’ run begins Sunday against the Super Bowl champions of not so long ago, question marks over whom, amid Patrick Mahomes’ not-so-unerring accuracy and a defense trying to patch up re-opening wounds, make them the perfect test for Mike McCarthy’s ensemble.
‘They’re back, Mahomes is back!’ celebrated tentative onlookers as the Chiefs and their quarterback rediscovered some oomph and finesse to dismantle the Raiders 41-14 – if ever there was an invitation for Dallas to choke-slam them back down.
It could be the worst time to play the Chiefs, or it could be the best time. How the Cowboys handle the unpredictability of a newly-fired up, slightly cagy, and maimed yet still-lethal Kansas City team will go a long way towards answering to their ‘realness’.
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Patrick Mahomes threw five touchdown passes as the Kansas City Chiefs offense rediscovered their best form in a 41-14 rout of the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday Night Football
For a side featuring a catalogue of ‘prove them wrong’ narratives, Dak Prescott’s value was proven unequivocally in his absence last year as the Cowboys’ season ultimately ended in unison with his injury.
Since returning to action, he has stripped the non-Dak believers of grounds on which to argue against his credentials as a top tier quarterback, starting the season 201 of 286 passing with a 70.3 completion percentage (2nd in the NFL) for 20 touchdowns (tied-fourth) and five interceptions along with a league-high passer rating of 110.8.
He followed up arguably the worst game of his career against the Broncos by going 24 of 31 for 296 yards and two touchdowns and finishing with the best quarterback EPA per play in Week 10. His touchdown lob to CeeDee Lamb with two rushers in his face was a clinic in poise, execution and play-design (he had instructed Lamb to prepare for the exact play on the sideline). The shoulder-lowering scoring run through tackles, with the game already won, was a statement of intent as he returned to the MVP conversation.
Prescott leads the NFL’s No 1 ranked offense that also enters Week 11 No 1 in points per game, No 5 in passing, No 4 in rushing and No 4 in DVOA (14.6 per cent), which calculates a team’s efficiency based on down-and-distance of each play.
Annoyance with the Cowboys in previous years has often been less about the ‘America’s Team’ expectations and the prosperity, but more so the factory of capable, yet underachieving talent. The ceiling is again as high as any team in the league, and the depth among the elite. Now we wait for the final result.
Where some sides lay claim to three or four standout playmakers, players who even on those trendy off days can influence momentum, the Cowboys could probably boast eight or nine.
They have two legitimate No 1 receivers in Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, the latter of whom leads the team with 47 catches for 726 yards and six touchdowns, while Michael Gallup returned for just his second game of the season on Sunday to complete a top five receiving trio.
The fumbling, stumbling Ezekiel Elliott of 2020 has reignited his production with 663 rushing yards for seven touchdowns as one of the league’s upper echelon goal-line operators and pass protectors. Tony Pollard provides an explosive pick-your-poison alternative out of the backfield, tight end Dalton Schultz has contributed 38 catches for 438 yards and three scores and the team’s offensive line is one of the smartest and toughest to breach in the league.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has come into his own with the guard-in-the-backfield, wildcat quarterback, orbiting and motioning, colourful scheme the league likes to gush over when it comes to other teams. Expect to hear his name mentioned when teams begin trying to fill head coaching vacancies at the end of the season.
Adjacent to him, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is in Assistant Coach of the Year contention with his unit currently ranked 10th in points allowed, ninth against the run, fourth in takeaways (17) and fourth in DVOA (-13.7 per cent), a stark contrast to the shoddy efforts of Mike Nolan’s defense last season.
His efforts to prod and adapt the Cover 1/Cover 3 scheme, honed with the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, has been aided by Trevon Diggs’ boom-or-bust aggression, predominantly booming with eight interceptions and 13 pass defenses. Rookie Micah Parsons has transitioned seamlessly as an all-action menace with a team-high 44 tackles and six sacks, while serving as both off-ball linebacker and on-the-line pass rusher.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, currently on injured reserve, has five sacks and 22 pressures in seven games, and the Cowboys have managed to survive without injured edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and interior lineman Neville Gallimore. Carlos Watkins, Justin Hamilton, Osa Odighizuwa and Brent Urban have all deserved credit for holding down an interior that struggled last year.
They went toe-for-toe with the champion Bucs on opening day, out-lasted Justin Herbert in Week Two, dampened the early season Carolina Panthers buzz, saw out the job in overtime against a dangerous New England Patriots outfit and edged a tricky Minnesota Vikings behind backup quarterback Cooper Rush.
What’s more, they have become an unusually-likeable side, with an exceptional human at quarterback, fun young players on both sides of the ball, a bold offensive coordinator and some added chutzpah.
Losing on Sunday won’t discredit their ‘realness’, but it is a prime opportunity to lay down their most meaningful marker yet. Slay the Chiefs, silence Arrowhead and then things start to get interesting.
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