We're only one week into the season, but it's clear that the NFC remains shallow and wide open. And that the Cowboys nation has every reason to maintain optimism for the weeks ahead.
A few days ago, the community predicted where the Cowboys would finish this year. One question that was not asked involves the strength of the conference. You don't play in a vacuum and your final position depends as much on your competition as much as it does on you. So what can we conclude about the NFC after week one?
In the East, the Eagles are a power, regardless of their loss to the Falcons. Remember, they began the 2003 season with blowout losses to the Bucs and Patriots, and still made it to the conference title game. They're not going anywhere.
The question marks are the Giants and Redskins -- and, of course, the Cowboys. The Giants had an explosive opener, but Tom Coughlin is already grousing about the mistakes his team made. Washington is looking for its first TD. It has also made its first QB switch, promoting Mark Brunell to starter. We'll see how limber Brunell remains when he faces the Cowboys next week.
In the North, the consensus-pick Vikings have already fallen flat, though they have always had trouble solving a Monte Kiffin defense. The Packers, most everyone's pick to be the letdown team of the year, are falling down on cue. Javon Walker's ACL tear and the eroding play of Brett Favre could make this a long year for the Cheeseheads. The mystery is Detroit. Their defense looked awful in the preseason but shut down Green Bay. How much of this is the maturity of the young Detroit D and how much of that result was due to Green Bay's decay?
In the South, everybody loves the Saints, but can a team without a home get consistent play for sixteen games? The NFL has done the Saints no favors by moving them around like a flailing sitcom. If they win this year it will be in spite of the league suits. Tampa has added Mark Clayton and Cadillac Williams the past two years, but can their seeming brilliance overcome a very pedestrian offensive line?
The big news there is the continuing bad luck of the Panthers. The preseason pick (mine included) has lost Pro Bowl DT Kris Benson for the year with an ACL tear. It's only one player, and only one game, but this is how Carolina's snakebitten '04 started. And they will feel Benson's absense the rest of the way. Unless Brian Griese recaptures his early form with the Broncos, or the Panthers find a new anchor for their defense, Atlanta may win this one the way the Eagles have won the East of late -- early and easily.
In the West, the world is upside down. There was no consensus pick in a conference most have rated worst in the NFL. The one thing people did agree upon was that San Francisco was the worst of the lot. Today the 49ers are the only team with a win. The Cardinals showed that their offense can stockpile as many skill positions it wants, but won't go anywhere until the offensive line improves. That's only been an issue, since Dan Dierdorf retired almost 20 years ago. The Rams and the Seahawks don't seem able to stop anybody so their offenses will have to win shootouts.
Who among this cast of competitors scares you? The Falcons beat the Eagles, but Atlanta's passing game is still hot and cold. The Eagles, on the other hand, gave up over 200 yards rushing. It's hard to believe that Jeremiah Trotter is that important to that team, but they can't afford for him to get into any more pregame fights, or worse, suffer an injury. When ESPN has the Eagles rated second best in the NFC and Dallas rated third (only three conference teams are in the top 10) you have to ask yourself, why can't the Cowboys make a serious run?