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If Sunday was the real Cowboys, watch out

If the Cowboys are who they showed on Sunday then the rest of this season should be fun.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys
A new dynamic duo.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There are two kinds of wins in the NFL. There are nail-biting games that come down to the final minutes, where the elation of pulling out the win is mixed with a sense of relief that it didn’t go the other way. Then there are the ones where the outcome is decided well in advance of the end. Those are far less exciting, but have a unique satisfaction that comes from seeing your team just beat down the opponent with ease.

The Dallas Cowboys got one of the latter in their 43-20 domination of the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. It is their fourth such game of the season, and like their season opening 40-0 thrashing of the New York Giants, it was over well before halftime. With the San Francisco 49ers suddenly in a tailspin, the NFC is looking more like a three-team race between Dallas, the surprising Detroit Lions, and the Cowboys’ next opponent, their division rival Philadelphia Eagles.

If this version of the team keeps showing up, the thought that this could finally be their year after a quarter century of futility is not at all far-fetched. However, there is the unavoidable doubt that comes from the two extremely disappointing losses they suffered to the Arizona Cardinals and those 49ers.

The next game was always anticipated to be a likely contest to determine the favorite to win the NFC East at the midpoint of the season, and that has become the reality. If Dallas can go into Philadelphia and secure a win, they will be in the driver’s seat. Dallas has been involved in six lopsided games so far, but they did prove they could win a close game in rebounding from the embarrassment in San Francisco to beat the Los Angeles Chargers by three points. The Eagles have been in five one-score games out of the eight they have played, going 4-1 with their lone loss of the season coming against the New York Jets.

While it is always risky to predict division games, the omens favor the Cowboys. Coming out of bye, they seemed to have almost all things working well. The Texas Coast offense was on fire, with Dak Prescott amassing 304 yards and four touchdowns in just over three quarters of work. Only a tipped ball interception marred his day. A huge part of that was the continuing dominance of CeeDee Lamb. For the third time this year and the second in a row, he exceeded 100 yards in receptions, setting career best marks for yards with 158, two touchdowns, and twelve receptions. He now leads all wide receivers in catch rate percentage.

It is not only highly encouraging that Dallas now has such a dynamic and dangerous combination on offense, it is a very good sign for head coach and play-caller Mike McCarthy to have doubled down on them coming out of the bye. The overall performance of his Texas Coast offense against the Rams is a big boost for confidence in a scheme that sputtered at times this year. They seem to have overcome the red zone woes with two touchdowns in four opportunities, with the failures that interception and a field goal at a point when they didn’t exactly need a touchdown.

That field goal, which gave Brandon Aubrey a tie of the record for made FGs to start a career, came at the end of a drive that was peak ball control offense, capping a 17-play drive that ate ten minutes of game clock to keep the ball away from Los Angeles after they had scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions bracketing halftime. It killed the last hope for the Rams of getting back into the game. Even though the Cowboys settled for three points, this was a crushing possession by Dallas that effectively sealed the win.

While the passing offense was firing on all cylinders, stretching the field more than any other game this season, the running game still sputtered. The Cowboys hardly needed a strong ground attack on Sunday, and Prescott’s 25 of 31 completion rate was an effective substitute for the run game, a trait of the West Coast offense McCarthy’s scheme is based on.

This is a hopeful sign as they prepare to play the Eagles. Philly is only 17th in the league in yards allowed and 18th in points given up. That 4-1 record in close games also is something to consider, because that is hard to maintain. On the flip side, the Eagles have come from behind in multiple games, something the Cowboys have done only once, with the Chargers scoring first. Dallas tied the game up on their next possession and never trailed again.

Perhaps the biggest stat to watch is the turnover margins of the two teams. The Cowboys are plus six, fourth best in the league, while Philadelphia is minus three. Jalen Hurts has an interception problem, throwing eight already. His previous season high was nine in 2021, and he has already been sacked 19 times, half his total from last year’s career high in that category. His team has also lost five fumbles. If those trends continue on Sunday, it is highly likely Dallas wins the game.

The defense also looks like a big plus for the Cowboys. They continue to put great pressure on opposing quarterbacks, despite not getting a lot of sacks. That has gotten them off the field a lot, and obviously they know how to take the ball away, led by pick-six specialist DaRon Bland. Hurts is still dangerous with his running ability, but Micah Parsons is a great counter with his own phenomenal athleticism, and the overall run defense has taken a major step forward for Dallas. They still have to worry about offensive weapons like A.J. Brown and D’Andre Smith, but if they can play like they have in the wins this year, they should have the needed answers.

The Cowboys also have a not-so-secret weapon in a special teams unit that had another banner day Sunday. They scored a safety, saw a huge return from KaVontae Turpin and a touchdown that was called back by penalty, and Aubrey has simply been perfect since that lone missed extra point on the first attempt of his career. It was feared that the loss of C.J. Goodwin would have a negative impact on teams, but an unexpected replacement emerged in second year defensive end Sam Williams, who had himself a day.

You can bet John Fassel is going to insist on keeping Williams playing on punt coverage.

One factor that must be considered is that Dallas is on the road against the Eagles, and both their losses have been away games. The Cowboys need to play like they do at home, where they now have the league’s longest winning streak at eleven. We all know how unfriendly Lincoln Financial Field can be with all those kind-hearted, polite fans, but this is something they need to deal with.

However, stepping back to take a longer view, having AT&T Stadium become a real advantage for the team is a good sign going forward. Following this week, Dallas plays four of their next five at home, with the one-win Carolina Panthers the only road trip. That stretch ends with the Philadelphia rematch. It could set them up with a strong record for the challenging stretch of games in December.

But they have to play one game at a time. Clearly they can be beaten if they come out like they did in Arizona and San Francisco. And so far, their opponents this year have a combined 20-27 record this season. They just have not played many teams with good records. The Eagles are of course 7-1 coming into this game.

If Dallas plays the way they did against the Rams, they absolutely can win this game. The worry is that the bad version of the team is still lurking inside them. This is a big one, and they need to rise to the challenge. We are about to find out if they will.

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