One of the effects of playing in the NFL primetime games on Sunday and Monday night is that teams usually know beforehand how their rivals did. That is more common for the Dallas Cowboys than most. But in some cases, that can be more a negative than a positive as it is this week. Going into the MNF game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Cowboys know that they have to win to keep pace with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington, both of whom won their games on Sunday to get to 2-1 on the season.
That is just one way there is considerable pressure on Dallas going into the game tonight. The NFC East is looking like it is going to be a two- or three-team dogfight, with the New York Giants already facing incredibly long odds to make it to the playoffs after slumping to an 0-3 start. While it is still early, the Cowboys would not be helping their case any by losing this game and falling behind for the division lead. Philadelphia eked out a narrow win over the Giants, but it was a division game where things are so often very tight. And Washington just looked impressive, dominating the preseason darling Oakland Raiders. The NFC East is likely to come down to head-to-head matchups, where the Eagles have the advantage after winning both of their division games so far. Meanwhile, as teams around the league seem to finally be showing their actual nature after the first two weeks are done, Washington may be rounding into very good form. And given how closely the teams tend to play one another within the NFC East, those games can result in very unexpected outcomes. Racking up out-of-division wins is always a good way to have a little insurance.
As we are all aware, the Cowboys also have a lot of pressure to show which of their first two games really represents this team, the opening night domination of the Giants, or last week’s total and complete humiliation at the hands of the Denver Broncos. Nothing really worked for Dallas a week ago, with the exception of Demarcus Lawrence rushing the quarterback. The list of things that need to be corrected is frighteningly long, but these are probably the biggest three: Dallas needs to re-establish the run game, Dak Prescott has to get his rhythm back and return to protecting the ball, and the defense has to tackle much, much better. Oddly enough, the fact that so many facets of the game broke down makes it easier to believe that was an aberration. But tonight’s contest will be the real test. If the Cowboys flounder in even one or two areas of the game, it could make for a long and frustrating year.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are in a very similar situation. They also sit at 1-1, and are trying to keep pace with the surprising Los Angeles Rams, who seem to no longer be affected by Jeff Fisher syndrome, otherwise knows as 7-9 disease. This is also their home opener, which brings certain expectations as well. And they too had a rather embarrassing game that leaves the real nature of their team up in the air. It makes the stakes for both teams quite alike.
It is something of a strange game in that the Cowboys and Cards met in the Hall of Fame game to start preseason. But that is actually the norm for Dallas this year, with them meeting the Rams and Raiders this year after also playing them in preseason. That Hall of Fame game has almost no bearing on anything really, since very few of the players that will be on the field tonight even saw a down of action in Canton. Still, it is quite rare for a team to face three preseason opponents in the regular season. Not to mention to have a preseason game cancelled due to natural disaster. And strangeness has been something of a hallmark for the Cowboys’ 2017.
There has been the ongoing Ezekiel Elliott case. The NFL waited until close to the start of the season to announce the results of its year plus investigation, creating an air of uncertainty for the team. Subsequent developments have at least raised the suspicion that the delay was a tactic on the league’s part to try and get acquiescence from Elliott on his suspension. That is certainly not how things happened, and the handling of the arbitration of his appeal is leading to some real legal battles and maneuvers. In any case, the uncertainty over Elliott’s availability was no help at all to the team.
At the same time, other suspensions and legal problems kept piling up. Damontre Moore has now served his two-game suspension while David Irving is halfway through his. Still to be determined are situations with Nolan Carroll and Damien Wilson.
For only the third game of the year, this one has a surprising significance going forward. The Cowboys are under some heat, and it is going to be important that they don’t let it get to them. A loss tonight would not be the end of the season - but it surely would make for a much rockier road ahead.