The Dallas Cowboys had their traditional early bye week and now face the remaining three-quarters of a season while attempting to stay in the chase for the NFC East title and a playoff spot. They got a little help this weekend as two of their three opponents in the East were defeated in their games. They now stand half a game out of the lead, trailing both the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles who are 3-2, with the Washington Redskins bringing up the rear at 2-3.
Although the two losses this year have been very disappointing for the way the team performed during the games, the team is very much in the mix if they can right the ship and start playing up to the level of talent they seem to have. Based on the 9-6 win the Baltimore Ravens eked out over the struggling Kansas City Chiefs, the next game may well be a defensive struggle, which does play into the strength of the Cowboys. Rob Ryan's defense has shown itself to be playing well in most of the games, and the anticipated returns of Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Kenyon Coleman should only help things. Additionally, the team may finally see the debut of rookie safety Matt Johnson. His contributions will almost certainly be limited, but with the loss of Barry Church, the team can use all the help it can get.
The big question will be how the Dallas offense performs. Against the respected Ravens defense, they cannot afford the ghastly breakdowns that plagued them in the beatdown administered by the Chicago Bears. Phil Costa may be healthy for the Baltimore game. That does not mean he is an answer, but he would give Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan another piece to use in trying to get at least adequate performance out of a struggling line. Right now, the biggest issue would have to be the disappointing play by Mackenzy Bernadeau. If Costa is ready to go again at center, the team may want to give Ryan Cook a shot at right guard. Cook has played well under very difficult circumstances since being called on to fill in for Costa after the first series of the opening game. If he can show the same kind of play sliding over to his more accustomed position, he should be an upgrade for the mistake-prone Bernadeau.
One thing that the Cowboys desperately need is a faster start offensively. Tony Romo had his obligatory meltdown against Chicago, although the early interceptions were not his fault alone, and the tipped ball by Kevin Ogletree was not on him at all. Jason Witten played much like the Senator we have all come to love against Chicago. Miles Austin is showing consistency, but Ogletree and Dez Bryant need to get closer to that level of play. If the Cowboys could come out of the gate playing with authority and put up an early lead, they would be in a position to dictate the flow of the game, something they have only been able to do against the Giants. Even in that game, they had to come from behind, and in all four games this season they have let the other team score first.
This is not something that can be blamed on the defense, which has had burdens such as a fumbled opening kickoff against the Seattle Seahawks (which they kept from turning into a touchdown with an excellent stand) to deal with. Despite the two rather lopsided losses, Dallas' defense is still sixth in yards allowed. They can certainly slow another team down, and have only looked bad in a couple of drives by the opponents. However, Baltimore will be a significant challenge, coming into the game second in the NFL in total yards and fifth in points per game (pending the outcome of the Sunday and Monday night games). The Kansas City tape will be something that Rob Ryan is going to be studying with intensity, to see just how a team that is next to last in points allowed held the Ravens to just three field goals.
This might also be a chance to get the running game back on track. Although the lackluster performance by Dallas factors into the stats, the fact remains that Dallas has faced the second, third and fourth rated rushing defenses in the league the past three weeks. While Baltimore is hardly a pushover, they may give DeMarco Murray a chance to look a little more like he did in the opening game. But that will again depend on some better play up front, and also on seeing more of the kind of play we expected this year from Lawrence Vickers, who has been very disappointing at fullback so far.
OCC has one of his typically excellent articles up about the special teams that I can't add much to. Suffice it to say that the team needs to keep covering returns the way they are now, but find a way to get some yards themselves.
While the current standings certainly show some hope for the Cowboys, the team needs to start taking care of business on the field, not looking to see who can knock off their rivals. One thing they have in their pocket is the win over the Giants. New York is starting to look like the team that won the last Super Bowl after their big come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns. Dallas has to focus on getting wins, not who else loses. The important things right now is that they are in a position to stay in the race. The way the team plays on Sunday will tell us something about them, although given the widely varying games they have put on the field, it will hardly tell the story for the entire season.
At this point, it would be nice to have an idea of what this edition of the Dallas Cowboys really is, but nobody really knows. My best guess is that they are going to hang around, although that may be too optimistic. They are clearly in range of the division leaders, but they cannot afford to let any real distance open up. There is a lot of football to be played. The Cowboys need to make sure they are playing well, or we will all be focused on the 2013 draft far too early this year.