If the Cowboys are truly contenders in the NFC there’s no question as to how they will respond in Arizona on Monday night. After a humiliating performance in Denver where the defense missed tackle after tackle, allowed the Broncos to repeatedly convert third down and medium to long, and where the vaunted offensive line and running game was whipped up and down the field, a true contender would come out the next week and immediately look to establish themselves and control the tempo of the game.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a 20-point blowout victory, Arizona can be a difficult place to play after all and it is their home opener in primetime. What it does mean though is that Dallas must come out with intensity and focus from the opening whistle; no bumbling pre-snap penalties, no soft missed tackles on third down, and settle in to what you do best on the offensive side of the ball without letting the opponent dictate the pace to you.
The Cardinals are not an impressive offensive team, most would even call them outright bad, but they do have some weapons on the outside and Carson Palmer is very adept at hitting a few big plays each game off play-action. This means that the young, banged up, embattled secondary must respond after a pathetic display last week, and play with discipline against play-fakes so as not to give up anything easy over the top. Without star running back David Johnson and starting left tackle D.J. Humphries the Cardinals offense is not good enough to consistently put together 10-12 play scoring drives, so the defense must ensure that they don’t make things easy by allowing them to hit a few big plays to quickly put points on the board.
Conversely, it will likely take at least one or two turnovers from the Cardinals defense in order for them to win the game given their lack of offensive firepower. The Cowboys offense will once again have their hands full with an excellent pair of edge rushers in Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, backed up by two of the top defensive backs in the league in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. They are complemented in the middle of the field by athletic linebackers like first-round rookie Haason Reddick and perhaps Deone Bucannon, who could be making his season debut coming off an injury.
That is more than enough top-end talent who can turn a game on it’s head with a few big plays, especially at home in what should be a raucous atmosphere, at least at the start. With that said the Cowboys offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott should come out with something to prove, and if they can run the ball the Cardinals defense could really struggle given their lack of depth on the defensive line, especially when considering that their offense is not exactly built to control the pace of games.
It won’t be easy early on when Arizona has the emotion of the crowd behind them, but if the Cowboys can get the run going and avoid untimely critical mistakes, namely turnovers and drive-killing penalties, they should have no problem scoring enough to stress the anemic Carson Palmer-led offense.
Long story short, the Cowboys are the better team but playing on the road can be the great equalizer, especially in an emotional environment, and especially if the road team comes out unprepared or sloppy. We saw what can happen under those circumstances last week and while the Cardinals offense isn’t quite to the level of the Broncos, and neither is their defense for that matter, they have enough to beat anybody who comes into their stadium unready to play and shoots themselves in the foot.
Given the pride and competitiveness of many in the Cowboys locker room I’m confident that this will not be the case as we head into tonight’s game. It’s hard to imagine guys like Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Sean Lee, Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Elliott following up one of the worst overall team performances in years with another clumsy effort. With that in mind expect the Cardinals defense to do enough to keep things close for a while, but for the Cowboys to establish control early before pulling away late. Cowboys 27-17.