The Dallas Cowboys sit atop the NFL with a stellar 9-1 record. They have reeled off a franchise record of consecutive wins and 400-yard offensive outputs. With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott dominating the MVP discussions, much less Offensive Rookie of the Year, things look very bright.
But despite sitting atop most of the power rankings for the league, there are still some who seem to doubt just how legitimate this team is. And there is one fact that lends some credence to that lack of belief in the Cowboys: They have faced a very weak schedule so far. The ten opponents they have played so far are a combined 38-61-2, and the only teams they have encountered that have a winning record at this point in the season are two division opponents, the New York Giants, who own the only win over Dallas, and the upcoming opponent, Washington. In the last eight wins, they have not faced a single team that is currently above .500. Things are about to get tougher, based on records to date. The last six games (including the rematches with all three division opponents) have them facing teams with a combined 35-24-1 ledger. All of the final six teams they have to play have at least a .500 record.
Does this mean there is trouble ahead? It does bolster the argument that the current winning streak has to end at some point. The Cowboys had the good fortune to face (and sweep) the AFC North, which has turned out to be the weakest division in the NFL by a good margin, plus they had the last place San Francisco 49ers on their early schedule, and the 49ers have the second-worst record in the league. Now they face not only their NFC East rivals in those division games that almost always turn out harder than the records coming in would indicate, but also the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all of whom are fighting for their own division crowns.
With a two game lead in the NFC East and a game and a half advantage over the Seattle Seahawks for home field advantage through the playoffs, Dallas is certainly in good shape and can probably afford one or even two losses. That is not the goal, of course, but we do have to be realistic. The questions remain, though. How much of the success this season is due to weak opposition? Does this mean that the Cowboys are really not quite as good as their record makes them appear?
Perhaps things are not completely deceiving about the wins Dallas has amassed, however. Based on several ways of gauging things, the Cowboys are not just winning games. They are doing so convincingly. They have the biggest points differential margin in the league at +98, with the New England Patriots the only other team even close with +91. The third-place margin belongs to the 5-5 Philadelphia Eagles, at +55. That indicates that the Cowboys are not just winning, they are often winning comfortably, and indeed, five of their nine victories have been by ten points or more. They don’t just beat bad teams, they beat them badly.
Another way of measuring the strength of teams is Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). It has a pretty good history of predicting the strength of teams, and currently the Cowboys have the fourth-best number, trailing the Seahawks, Eagles (which have been a strange outlier all season), and Patriots. It is not the best place to be, especially with the Seahawks looking like the biggest hurdle in the playoffs (assuming Dallas does make it there, which is by all historical indications just about certain) and the Eagles coming up in the last game of the regular season. But it still indicates that the Cowboys are among the elite teams in the league, and have an excellent shot at getting to at least the conference championship. But given the reputation of the Seattle home crowd, that makes maintaining the first seed a pretty high priority.
Beyond all this, there is one thing the Cowboys also have working in their favor, and that is head coach Jason Garrett. He is the absolute king of focusing on today and yourself. And there is a lot of evidence that no other roster in the NFL is as bought into the message and philosophy of their head coach as Dallas. When the players speak, it is with one voice, and it is a universal echo of Garrett. They go into every game concentrating completely on doing their job, and right now, no team in the league is built as well as the Cowboys to do what they do: Wear down the other team and finish the game by taking over offensively. The Baltimore Ravens victory was a textbook example of that. Dallas takes the best punch the other team can throw in the first half, then imposes its will on them in the second. Prescott is still learning and growing, but the progress seems evident on the field. And he has an offensive cast surrounding him that just does not have a weak spot at the moment. The best line, the best running back, a future Hall of Fame tight end, and one of the best wide receiver corps in football. It makes up for a defense that is pretty much middle of the pack or a little worse in most aspects, although they have been one of the best in the league all season at limiting the other team’s ability to score, and now have become one of the best at stopping the run, despite one atypically bad series last Sunday.
This is not to say that any of the remaining games are going to be easy. There is almost certainly at least one loss lurking in the last six contests, and expect closer scores in most of them than we have seen in some of the previous wins. But it is hard to see the Cowboys finishing the regular season with less than 12 wins, and they have a real shot at tying or exceeding the historical franchise high of 13. Any talk about how the schedule has helped them is not going to get into their heads. They are playing their game now, and doing so as well or better than any other team in the NFL. That is what matters.