It was the worst case scenario for the Dallas Cowboys. Coming out of the bye, they benched Dak Prescott for the game against the Minnesota Vikings. With Cooper Rush taking the reins, hardly anyone gave them a chance of keeping their winning streak alive.
Then in their best Han Solo “don’t tell me the odds” mode, they went out and gained a hard-fought victory and now are tied in the loss column for the important number one seed in the NFC. That is the real goal now, as it is becoming closer and closer to a foregone conclusion that they will win their division. The expectation is that Prescott will be back for the next game at home against the Denver Broncos. Looking ahead to that, and beyond, there are now a lot of developments that favor them piling up several more wins.
We discussed the ideas in this post on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
It is always a tad risky to peer too far into the future, but that never stops us. After all, there are outside sources that see the Cowboys as likely to win each one of their remaining games. And the reasons to think so just keep piling up. The schedule has them with five non-divisional opponents before they face four of the last five against the NFCE.
Let’s take a look at what they have before their first game of the season against the Washington Football Team in week 14. As a rough measure of comparison, the points scored and allowed per game will be used. Keep in mind that Dallas is third in points scored at 32.1 while a middling 16th in points surrendered at 23.1.
Week 9 - Denver Broncos
The Broncos, like the Vikings coming into last Sunday, sit at .500. They have trouble scoring points with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, ranking 23rd in the league at just 19.6 points per game. What has kept them in still competitive in a very tight AFC West race is their defense, which ranks second in points allowed at just 17.1 PPG. But in a surprise move, they traded away Von Miller, one of their best defensive players, to the “all in” Los Angeles Rams. Dallas just prevailed against a fairly stout Vikings defense, and their own defense had one of its best games of the season in limiting Minnesota to just one touchdown and 16 points, highlighted by the phenomenal 1 of 13 on third downs they allowed. The Cowboys have opened as a very strong 9.5 point favorite - and they have beaten the spread in every game this season. This looks like a game they should handle easily.
Week 10 - Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are another team that is down a key element, in this case Calvin Ridley. He was one of the three main offensive threats for the team this year, along with Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts. Now Ridley is taking time away from the game to deal with his mental health. That is certainly something he should be praised for, not condemned. It still has an impact on a team that is having its own issues. They are a game under .500 and were having trouble generating points even with Ridley, averaging 21.1 PPG, down near the bottom third of the league. Couple that with a porous defense yielding 27.9 points on average, and this is another one the Cowboys are favored to win. The early line here has them a 9.5 point underdog, and that does not seem very premature or out of line at all.
Week 11 - at Kansas City Chiefs
If there is something that feels familiar about the disappointing 4-4 start for the team that won the Super Bowl after the 2019 season and was runnerup last February, it is because they have something similar to what the Cowboys faced a couple of years ago. They have a star quarterback and a defense that is giving him little-to-no help. They are in the bottom ten in PPG allowed at 27.5. As a result, Patrick Mahomes is pressing and making too many bad throws, and they are scoring only 26.0 PPG. That still ranks them ninth in the NFL, but things are skewed by the dropoff in scoring after the top three teams, who are all over 32 PPG. For his entire career, Mahomes has relied on his superb mobility to get out of trouble and create on the fly. But now he seems to bail too early and so far the magic has often failed him. He still racks up yards, ranking third in the league, but his 19 to 10 TD to INT ratio is a far cry from past seasons. With Trevon Diggs hopefully back on the interception train by then and the rest of the Dallas defense just showing us so much more than last year, he looks ripe for the picking. (Pun absolutely intended.) Further, their already middle of the road rushing game is without their best back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He may be back for the Dallas game, but if not, that will just put more pressure on Mahomes. KC is still a dangerous team if they can correct some of their problems. But the fairly desultory win over the New York Giants showed little sign of progress, especially on their struggling offensive line. What was once seen as one of the biggest obstacles for the Cowboys this season now just looks like another game they should be favored in.
Week 12 - Las Vegas Raiders
The Thanksgiving Day game appears to be the next real challenge coming up, with Las Vegas leading the tight AFC West with a 5-2 record. They have seen their share of turmoil with the resignation of Jon Gruden, but they might have found a keeper with interim head coach and former Cowboys ST coach Rich Bisaccia, who had led his team to two consecutive wins. But they just released their best receiver Henry Ruggs III after he was arrested following a DUI accident that tragically caused the death of another person. While all the turmoil rather clouds the picture for them, they are currently tenth in points scored per game at 25.1 and two spots behind the Cowboys with 23.7 PPG given up. They are also the only upcoming opponent in this five game stretch that is close to Dallas in turnover margin, with the Cowboys at +5 and the Raiders at +4. This could be a really good game, and the best measuring stick we have for this year’s edition of Dallas before the playoffs.
Week 13 - at New Orleans Saints
The Saints just lost starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who was salvaging his career under Sean Payton, but got a gutsy performance from Trevor Siemian (plus an uncharacteristically bad one from Tom Brady) in handing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their second loss of the season. It is unknown if Siemian will continue to start or if Payton will elect to go with Taysom Hill, who is expected back from the concussion protocol this week. Nonetheless, this is not a game that the Cowboys can sleep on, given how good Payton is in finding solutions. The 25.1 PPG they score is somewhat above average, 13th in the league, while their defense has been a big help, sitting fourth overall with a stingy 18.3. This shapes up to be a true strength against strength when Dallas has the ball, but like with others on this list, we are not sure at all what their team will be when on offense. RB Alvin Kamara is always dangerous, and Mark Ingram looked very good in his return to New Orleans. The news that WR Michael Thomas now expects to miss the rest of the season is not good for them, however. A lot can still change, so this one bears watching.
The race for the bye
While there is certainly still time for movement, currently the battle to get the number one seed and the lone bye in the NFC is a six team race. The Cowboys are tied in the loss column with the Green Bay Packers, Rams, and the Arizona Cardinals, with the two loss Buccaneers and Saints the only other teams with a significant if lesser chance of getting in the mix. And the recent news that Aaron Rodgers will miss this week’s game due to testing positive for COVID could lead to them picking up another loss against the Chiefs. Green Bay is a seven-point underdog in the wake of that development. Jordan Love was the only other quarterback on their roster at the time of this writing, which led them to bring in Blake Bortles. (Insert your own The Good Place joke here.) The Packers do have a history of getting a lot out of backup quarterbacks in a pinch.
Oh, wait, that was under Mike McCarthy.
In any case, Dallas will have to maintain their current winning ways to stay in this hunt. But just as with the issues facing the next five opponents, things just seem to keep falling their way.
Cowboys consistency may be the key
One remarkable thing about Dallas is how they have overcome multiple starters missing games. We all saw how they powered through the absence of Prescott with Rush at the helm. They have also not missed a beat with players such as La’el Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Gallup, and Neville Gallimore out for long stretches. Despite all that, they have been remarkably steady over the first seven games, as illustrated by a chart put together by our own Aiden Davis.
Expected points added (EPA) is seen as one of the better ways of gauging a football team’s effectiveness on both offense and defense, and as the graphic shows, the Cowboys have been staying on a level and positive track since the start of this season and even back to the last part of the disastrous 2020 campaign. This, in spite of the missing players already mentioned, is one of the best indicators that Dallas is performing at a consistently strong level, and offers a real reason to believe things are not going to degrade soon.
While it is important to evaluate what challenges other teams are facing, the Cowboys first must focus on what they can control. So far this season, they have been doing very, very well with that. The personnel issues the team has had is comparable to any these upcoming opponents have, yet they have now strung together six wins in a row. Only the Packers have more with seven (and that is due to them having played one more game since, like Dallas, they dropped their opener). That could very well change this week.
After years of seeing the fortunes of football go against them, the Cowboys might finally be seeing luck and the stars line up in their favor.