Sunday night's victory over division rival New York reminded me of two other opening nights of fairly recent vintage, both against the same team: 2007's barn-burner, also at home against the Giants, which kicked off the Wade Phillips regime with a 45-35 victory after a back-and-forth contest, and last year's opener in the Big Apple, won by the Cowboys 24-17. Both openers left the Cowboy faithful with a lot of questions, which would need to be answered in subsequent weeks.
And it's these subsequent weeks that I wish to discuss here. In both 2007 and 2012, the Cowboys went on the road in week two to face a team that hadn't had much success the previous season. In '07, it was a trip to Miami, to face a Dolphins team that had been 6-10 the previous campaign; in '12, they voyaged to Seattle, to face a Seahawks squad coming off a 7-9 year and sporting a vertically challenged rookie quarterback.
In 2007, the Cowboys were locked up with the Dolphins fairly tightly, holding onto a 17-13 lead into the third quarter, before two long Terrell Owens and Marion Barber scores helped them win going away, 37-20. In fact, this proved to be how the team won for much of that glorious 2007 season: toy with teams early before putting on the gas and then using the running game - and Barber - to grind out the clock en route to comfortable wins. The next week in Chicago, for example, the score was 10-10 in the third quarter before the Cowboys' big offensive line wore down the Bears, and Dallas won going away, 34-10.
2012's second game was equally prophetic. After the opener at New York, Cowboys nation was giddy, but quickly fell to earth with a thud after the Seahawks dominated the visiting Cowboys en route to a 27-7 win. As the Cowboys had done to other squads in 2007, the 'Hawks beat up on the Cowboys late, running the ball down the defense's throats in the second half (Marshawn Lynch amassed 122 rushing yards; as a team, Seattle ran 41 times for 182 yards). As was the case in 2007, the year's second contest helped to answer questions posed by the first game. In 2012, however, those answers weren't nearly as positive; the defense in fact had a woeful year, one of the worst in franchise history.
As we embark on week two of the 2013 season, with en eerily similar storyline (win over Giants followed by trip to team that had a sub-.500 season the year prior), we have to ask: what aspect of Sunday night's contest will prove to be the year's dominant memes? Will it be the way the defense played in the first half when, other than two long passes allowed, they did a nice job shutting down the Giants attack? Or will it be the way the played in the second half, when they resembled 2011's cornerbacks' inability to cover the most basic of pass patterns? Was the offense playing it close to the vest on Sunday or are they not nearly as explosive as we have imagined? Once the offensive line rounds into shape, will we see the return of the vertical game?
The simple truth is that we don't know. Opening weekends in the NFL are notoriously bad indicators of what is to come. For evidence, look no further than 2003, when the Drew Bledsoe-led Buffalo Bills blanked the Patriots 31-0. The jubilation in Buffalo and the hand-wringing in New England were short-lived: the Bills limped to a 6-10 record, and the Pats lost only once the rest of the year en route to the second of their three Super Bowls in the early 2000s. To punctuate this turn-around, the Pats avenged the loss in the season's final week - by the same 31-0 score.
In both 2007 and 2012's openers, the Cowboys made some nice plays, and there were enough holes in their games to generate concern. The same can - and should - be said about 2013's first game. On Sunday in Kansas City, against what looks to be an opponent that is far, far more talented than last year's 2-14 record would indicate, the Cowboys will be challenged to answer these questions as affirmatively as they did in 2007. If they do, then I think it will go a long way to showing they can be the kind of team that we imagined they might be.