Six one-score games, five touchdowns over 65 yards, four teams scoring more than 35 points, three fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie or take the lead, two improbable comebacks, and a partridge in a pear tree. NFL football is back, and week one did not disappoint.
With dominating wins and embarrassing losses, the perception of certain teams change. Take the Packers, a popular pick as the team to come out of the NFC this year, now has people questioning if Aaron Rodgers even wants to play football.
There are still seventeen weeks of football ahead, and we cannot overreact to what we saw. However, the first full slate of Sunday football is in the books, and there is greater clarity about the teams the Cowboys will face in 2021. Without overreacting to one game, who are the opponents on Dallas’ schedule that performed differently than what we expected?
The NFC East
The good news for Cowboys fans is that the NFC East performed similar to what we saw in 2020. With a combined 1-3 record in week one, it is safe to assume this division will not contend with the NFC West as the best in football.
The exception to this is the Eagles, who impressed anyone who expected Philadelphia to be a bottom three team. But this was also the most difficult NFC East game to get a read on. Are the Eagles significantly improved from last years’ collapse, or are the Falcons just that bad?
It is likely a combination of the two. The 32-6 final score is slightly misleading, considering ten of those points came from the Falcons turning the ball over on downs in their own territory during the fourth quarter.
But credit where credit is due, the Eagles defense suffocated Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense. The Philadelphia defense dominated the game with three sacks, two fourth-down stops, and only 260 yards of total offense allowed. Additionally, Jalen Hurts looked like a weapon for the Eagles offense. Finishing with three touchdowns and 264 yards, it was arguably the best game of Hurts’ career thus far.
If Hurts is able to perform this well every week, the Eagles will contend for the NFC East title. However, this was likely a dominant performance against a bad team. With that being said, Philadelphia proved that opponents need to take them seriously.
The Football Team and the Giants performed as expected. Washington is still a team with a disruptive defense, holding the Chargers to just nine points in the first half. The 85.2 passer rating that Justin Herbert finished with is the third-lowest of his young career. But the team is still limited by their quarterback play. Taylor Heinicke looked serviceable, putting up a 119.3 quarterback rating after Ryan Fitzpatrick got injured early in the second quarter. However, Heinicke still does not strike fear into opposing defenses and does not provide the same upside on a weekly basis as Fitzpatrick does.
The Washington defense will keep them competitive most weeks but winning in close games is difficult without an above-average quarterback. The team is likely similar to what was anticipated, an NFC East title contender that lacks consistent quarterback play.
There is not much to say about the Giants. Daniel Jones struggled in this game, only producing 13 points, with six of those coming in the final seconds of a blowout loss. The return of Saquon Barkley disappointed, with ten carries, 2.6 yards per attempt, and only hauling in one catch for a single yard.
The defense was similarly unremarkable. Allowing 5.9 yards per carry on the ground and 264 yards through the air to a Teddy Bridgewater-led offense is in no way daunting. The Giants defense is nowhere near as impactful as Washington, and with a well-below average offense, the team looks poised to finish at the bottom of the NFC East.
Games that seem more difficult for the Cowboys: New Orleans, Arizona, and Denver
On Sunday, the Cowboys’ non-NFC East 2021 opponents went a combined 6-3. The weaker schedule that Dallas was projected to face seemingly became more difficult. Based on offensive EPA per play and defensive EPA per play allowed, the Cowboys are set to face five teams in a higher tier than them after week one.
The headline from Sunday’s action is New Orleans making the Packers look like a team that could contend for the number one overall pick. The Saints defense took over this game. Shutting down the run at 2.9 yards per carry was impressive but not as remarkable as their pass defense. New Orleans allowed Rodgers to throw for only 4.8 yards per attempt at a 53.6% completion percentage with two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
Aaron Rodgers, last year’s MVP, finished with a Pro Football Focus grade of 43.3. Since Rodgers became the starter for Green Bay in 2008, he has finished with a PFF grade lower than yesterday only three times.
Jameis Winston did not have to do a lot. The favorable field position the Saints received due to their defensive efforts resulted in Winston throwing five touchdowns on just 148 yards passing. After week one, New Orleans looks like the most challenging matchup the Cowboys have in 2021.
Arizona’s performance did not generate the same attention as the Saints, but it was equally impressive. Finishing as the highest-graded PFF defense in week one, the Cardinals held the Titans to just thirteen points. This is the same Titans offense that many projected would be one of the best in football. Containing Derrick Henry is impressive but keeping him to just 3.4 yards per carry is nearly impossible.
The Arizona offense was producing points at will. Kyler Murray was finally trusting DeAndre Hopkins to come down with contested catches. With four touchdowns through the air and another on the ground, Murray was one of the best quarterbacks in week one.
The final team that the Cowboys now need to watch out for is the Denver Broncos. While not as dominant as the Saints or Cardinals, Denver was impressive in their season opener.
Last year, the Broncos were a team that seemed like they were one quarterback away from being legitimate contenders. While Teddy Bridgewater is not an elite playmaker, he provides this team with the needed consistency at quarterback to win games.
The Broncos are still a team the Cowboys should beat. However, with a solid defense and a new-look offense, don’t be surprised if the game is closer than you expect.
Games that seem easier for the Cowboys: Atlanta and Minnesota
As mentioned, the Cowboys 2021 opponents impressed in week one, meaning fewer games are guaranteed Cowboys victories. However, both the Vikings and Falcons are teams the Cowboys should not have a problem with.
Since we already discussed the Eagles demolishing the Falcons, there is not much else to say about how bad Atlanta looked. The Falcons defense made the Philadelphia offense, which finished as the third-worst in 2020, appear to be elite. The Atlanta offense responded to their defensive ineptitude by failing to score a single touchdown.
Outside of possibly the Jaguars, the Falcons now seem like the worst team in football. The Cowboys’ week ten matchup against this team should be a blowout. Maybe this was a fluke of a game for Matt Ryan, but there were no signs that Atlanta can contend with Dallas.
The Minnesota Vikings are a different story. Coming into this season, many expected them to compete for the NFC North title behind a high-powered offense and a significantly improved defense. But yesterday was reminiscent of the 2020 Vikings that finished at 7-9.
While the Bengals may be underestimated, Minnesota did not play like they wanted to win. There were multiple opportunities for the Vikings to take over this game, yet they failed to take advantage of them. While Kirk Cousins’ stat line appears admirable, he disappointed in situations where the game could have been won.
The defense allowed explosive plays to Joe Mixon and Ja’Marr Chase, despite this being Joe Burrow’s first game back from injury. The Vikings sacked Burrow five times, and yet that didn’t seem to play a significant outcome in this game.
At the moment, the Vikings have not lived up to the expectations that many had for them coming into this season. Because of that, the Cowboys should be able to win a home game against Minnesota. At the very least, it seems much more likely that Dak Prescott will be able to outperform Kirk Cousins.
While the Cowboys schedule looks more difficult now than it did three days ago, it is worth noting that strength of schedule is not as important as it seems.
As you can see, the opponents a team faces in a given year contribute to around one to two wins. However, good teams will find a way to win against a difficult schedule.
If the Cowboys want to be considered legitimate contenders, they will have to win against other playoff teams. While the Cardinals, Saints, and Broncos all impressed in week one, Dallas can still beat all three teams. It is games such as those that will prove how good of a team we’re watching.