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Deciding when to buy into this year’s Dallas Cowboys is a tough task

The Cowboys could be tied atop the NFC East after Sunday night when they play the Eagles.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoff-San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is officially listed as questionable ahead of the team’s Sunday night matchup with the Eagles, though the expectation is that his much-anticipated return to play is still at least a week away. Prescott will reportedly do some throwing in pregame warmups as part of his ramp up back to game speed. Under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football, it will once again be Rush hour in Philadelphia.

The script for this pivotal NFC East matchup feels familiar. On paper, the Cowboys are underdogs. In the media, head coach Mike McCarthy’s latest billboard material is that his team is “nobody’s underdog”, for good reason even going against the lone remaining unbeaten in the league. The four-game winning streak the Cowboys are on with Rush at QB includes a gutsy win against the reigning AFC champion Bengals, a Monday night win at the Giants, and defining road win at the defending champion Rams.

Winning this division with a gaudy 12-5 record a year ago earned the Cowboys all of a five-minute stay in the playoffs, when the 49ers came into AT&T Stadium with momentum and ended Dallas’ season in the Wild Card round. After week one this year against the Buccaneers, even reaching this point felt like a stretch for the 2022 Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Now, their path to back-to-back division championships for the first time since 1995-96 feels a lot clearer, but the road block of finding playoff success is still there. Whether fans are tuning in hoping for the Cowboys to win or lose, the always record-breaking amount of viewers the Cowboys draw have been treated to a new style of football that’s getting results in Dallas. The Cowboys have bought in to their best personnel being on defense, where Dan Quinn has done a masterful job using the talent at his disposal here.

The Cowboys are winning by holding every team they’ve played to just one touchdown per game, giving the playmakers around Rush the confidence that every catch or big run makes a difference. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have complemented each other as well as expected in the backfield, rookie Tyler Smith has handled the transition to left tackle wonderfully, and CeeDee Lamb is on his way to proving he can be a top-end receiver.

Considering Dak Prescott has accounted for at least two touchdowns in a third of his career starts (34-102), and the Cowboys still have the Commanders, Bears, Lions, and Texans on the schedule, it’s easy to see the hype for this team only building in a way that faded last year. Being cautious with Prescott has potentially shortened the window for the Cowboys to peak too soon like they did in ‘21 despite having Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Lamb all in this offense.

Kellen Moore’s offense still has changes to go through to stay fresh, with offensive line shuffling and the need for more consistency at both TE and WR. Jason Peters may be back in the Cowboys lineup against his former team, and has given them a good look at left guard in the run game.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Is the Eagles 5-0 start legitimate enough to earn the Cowboys more recognition nationally should they even their records at 5-1? Is Jalen Hurts and this dangerous Eagles offense the biggest test since Tom Brady for the defense, one they need to further prove they can carry this team at times? Both the Cowboys and Eagles are off to starts that have them thinking long-term about where this season could go, but its Philadelphia with the benefit of building off a playoff appearance last year and taking the next step, while Dallas has faced pressure for this to be a defining year for many key players and coaches.

The next step for America’s Team will always be at least reaching the NFC Championship game, something all but impossible to prove any team is ready for in the regular season - no matter how many upset wins and undefeated seasons they end.

A win on Sunday night could send the Cowboys hype train off the rails, but a loss may just show how much they’ll improve as an all-around team when their leader and quarterback is on the field. Either outcome keeps the NFC East crown in sight, though overcoming an undefeated Eagles team is no easy feat with the AT&T Stadium rematch not until Week 16 on Christmas Eve.

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