There is a great deal of excitement about the Dallas Cowboys. They are tied for the best record in the NFC, with a couple of rookie starters leading the way. And now Tony Romo has taken the first concrete steps towards returning to the field. There is a legitimate argument to be made that this team is better than the 2014 edition that went 12-4. If they can win the Sunday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles, they will be in the driver’s seat in the conference.
They have gotten here by bucking some trends. The offense is built around the running game in a passing league. They have two legitimate starting quarterbacks at a time when many NFL teams are desperate for just one. But perhaps most importantly, they have improved in a year when so many other teams are simply not very good.
Much has been made of the slip in TV ratings for the league this year, and despite a variety of excuses put forth by the NFL offices, the most likely culprit is the really bad product being put on the field by so many teams. And a lot of that can be traced back to what is something of a quarterback crisis. For many teams, they have a real problem at the position, and for others, a good passer is being largely wasted because there is no support for him. Dallas has both those situations well in hand. That may be the real key to success this year.
To show just what I mean, here is a rundown of all 32 teams, in groups that go from worst to best (based solely on my take on things).
Abandon all hope and start planning for the draft. The season is effectively over for these teams already.
Cleveland Browns. They have long been known as the place where quarterbacks go to see their careers disappear. This season, they have seen every quarterback they have started go down with injury, and much of the rest of their roster as well.
Jacksonville Jaguars. The announcers said that the team looked like it had given up on head coach Gus Bradley. They were right.
Chicago Bears. Jay Cutler is coming back. But what else do they really have?
San Francisco 49ers. We tried to tell them about Chip Kelly. He destroyed a good roster in Philadelphia, so what did they expect with what they had?
Doesn’t look like it’s their year. These teams are still technically not out of it, but the odds are against them.
New York Jets. They gave up on Ryan Fitzpatrick, then had to re-install him as starter. He has a huge chip on his shoulder - but it’s directed at his own staff, not the rest of the league.
Miami Dolphins. Ryan Tannehill just is not a good quarterback. Sorry.
Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco is averaging under six yards per passing attempt, and has thrown six interceptions and only five touchdowns.
Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck is playing well, but he is basically all they have. Their defense is not really stopping anyone.
New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is to the Saints as Luck is to the Colts. New Orleans is particularly hurt by having such a one-dimensional offense (fifth-worst rushing game in the league).
Los Angeles Rams. They traded up to take Jared Goff, but he is not deemed ready. Most importantly, they have Jeff Fisher as head coach.
Still some life left. They may still find a way to get to the playoffs, but won’t go far if they do.
Cincinnati Bengals. Andy Dalton is having a good year statistically, but they are only scoring an average of 20 points per game.
San Diego Chargers. At first it looked like Philip Rivers was going to be let down by his teammates again, but they have played up to his level the past couple of games. If they can keep the trend going, they can make a run for a playoff spot, but they are in the second toughest division in the league.
New York Giants. Eli Manning is being more bad Eli than good Eli, and the fortune they spent on defense has not kept them from being in the bottom five in the league in sacks. But Manning has a history of getting hot, so you can’t count them out yet.
The serious contenders. The 14 teams listed above constitute almost half the league. The playoff teams this year will almost certainly come from the remaining 18 franchises.
New England Patriots. It is easy to hate Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But they already look like the clear class of the AFC. Bookmakers are no longer taking bets on who wins the AFC East, because no one is betting against the Pats.
Buffalo Bills. They have emulated the Cowboys in developing a strong running game, ranked second in the league. But in the AFC East, they are most likely playing for a wild card spot, and have been inconsistent this year.
Pittsburgh Steelers. They are not top ten in many categories, but are above average both offensively and defensively. Given the relative weakness of the rest of their division, they are on course to win it.
Houston Texans. Brock Osweiler has been something between a disappointment and an abject embarrassment at quarterback. But the AFC South has to be won by somebody, and their defense has them leading the division.
Tennessee Titans. They are only half a game behind the Texans, and look to have a lot more at quarterback in Marcus Mariota. Somebody has to represent the division in the playoffs.
Oakland Raiders. Something of a surprise team this year, they are tied with the Broncos at the moment in the AFC West, the best division in that conference. It looks like at least one wild card team will come from there, and possibly both. The Raiders have a nice balance on offense, not being great at either passing or running, but not far out of the top ten in both categories.
Denver Broncos. The defending champions are rolling along, and may be the second best AFC team after New England. The defense is still the strength of the team, particularly their scoring defense.
Kansas City Chiefs. Both Denver and Oakland have to look over their shoulders. Andy Reid just keeps his team in the hunt.
Dallas Cowboys. The real surprise team of 2016. If they defeat the Eagles, there will be a solid case that they are the top team in the NFC. And they have the best quarterback depth in the league with Romo, Dak Prescott, and Mark Sanchez.
Philadelphia Eagles. Conversely, beating the Cowboys is very important to their hopes for the playoffs. A loss would put them two games back in the division, and more importantly raise serious questions of what trajectory they are on. The biggest issue for them is clearly whether Carson Wentz will return to the form of his first few games, or continue on the trend of the past three.
Washington. There is a pretty good argument to be made that they are the biggest challenger Dallas faces in the NFC East. They took a wait and see approach with Kirk Cousins and the franchise tag, and everyone is still waiting to find out if he is the future or not.
Minnesota Vikings. Great defense, but against the Eagles, Sam Bradford and the offense fell down. They have almost no running game at all, and Bradford does not have a good history of being able to lift his team up. But great defenses have carried mediocre quarterbacks all the way to the Lombardi Trophy several times before.
Green Bay Packers. Their season likely hinges on the simple question of whether Aaron Rodgers can return to form, or if he has permanently declined (or at least for the rest of this season). Outside of the Bears, this is a tough division this year.
Detroit Lions. Matt Stafford is playing the best football of his career, and that has the Lions right in the thick of things in the NFC North. This may be the most interesting division to watch this year.
Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan is lighting it up, but they are all passing offense and little else this year. They are having to win shootouts almost every week, and while that may win a weak division, it does not bode well for the postseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It is a sign of how weak the NFC South is that the Bucs are still in contention for the crown. Of all the teams still in the hunt, they seem the most likely to fall out soon.
Seattle Seahawks. Their offense has just about stopped working, due to injuries to Russell Wilson, which in turn may have a lot to do with a very poor offensive line. Still, they have four wins and one loss. Oh, and a tie.
Arizona Cardinals. That tie for the Seahawks was with the Cardinals, and that alone seems like pretty good evidence that these two teams are pretty closely matched. One of them will win the division, it appears. But neither is very impressive offensively.
That is the whole NFL, and right now, there are very few teams that look to really be strong. And the Cowboys are one of them. If they do get the win on SNF, it will be tempting to put them in a separate category with the Patriots as the two clear conference leaders. Even if they don’t get the W, there are probably not enough teams better than them in their conference to block them from the playoffs. Most of the rest have some clear flaws, which, so far, the Cowboys just have not demonstrated, or have been able to cover up effectively (such as the lack of a pass rush).
But it is still early. For now, we can say that Dallas has outperformed everyone but the very best in the entire NFL. That is simply a matter of record.