The Dallas Cowboys have a great opportunity to rack up another win as they face a very underwhelming opponent for the second week in a row. Last Sunday they blasted the New York Giants for the second time this season, and up next are the 1-8 Carolina Panthers, a team in a lot of turmoil as head coach Frank Reich can’t make up his mind who is calling the offense, and rookie quarterback Bryce Young is not doing very well with the situation. Hopefully, the Cowboys will see a similar outcome and gather some inertia as they make their run for the playoffs.
Still, the performance by the Giants can best be described in the precise technical term “they sucked,” and their quarterback situation was far worse than the Panthers’. Even if Dallas has a similar one-sided outcome, what does it really mean? As you might guess, our David Howman and Tom Ryle are considering that.
Tom: It is not often a team is blessed with back-to-back games like these. Frankly, anything less than a 20 point win on Sunday will be disappointing, and I expect to be rather satisfied. But even if they rack up another big win (five of their six wins have also had 20+ point margins) I’m going to channel my inner Han Solo and remind myself to not get cocky about this team.
David: Any time there’s a discussion about these sort of games - really any time the Cowboys beat a team they were supposed to beat - I think of college football. Watching Georgia beat Southeastern Louisiana Technical Institute of Mines by 50 doesn’t tell you anything about their ability to win the national championship, but nobody drops them in the weekly rankings. Because they had a game they were supposed to win big, and they did exactly that.
Why is it different in the NFL, where there’s way more parity than in college football? The Giants and Panthers are arguably the two worst teams in football, but they’re both still made up of the top athletes in the sport and are getting paid millions to play this game. The phrase “any given Sunday” exists for a reason, because these are professionals who wake up every single day determined to do what it takes to get a win.
So blowing out a team you were supposed to blow out should still count for something. Nobody will be planning a Super Bowl parade if the Cowboys win by 20 this week, but to your point it’ll be a disappointment if they don’t win big. Big wins over bad teams aren’t just nothing.
Tom: Part of that is the Cowboys effect. There really seems to be a separate standard for them. If the Kansas City Chiefs or the Philadelphia Eagles have a similar result, there seems to little if any talk about how they are a paper tiger. But for Dallas, it is so predictable.
My concerns are more related to whether this is the real nature of the team, or are they still going to be subject to big swings and future stumbles? While a big game against Carolina will make me feel a little better about the second thing, I’m still going to wait for some more formidable opponents to see if they can be consistently good, and even dominant. While they have had all those big wins, they have yet to beat a team with a winning record - the San Francisco 49ers and Eagles are the only opponents so far above .500 at this point of the season. And we know how those turned out.
While the trends are all headed in the right direction for the Cowboys, I still have a serious question in my mind of how they will fare in the next few weeks, as a string of teams with winning records hit the schedule.
David: It’s hard to really know how legit this team is until they play those games, but for now all they can control is how they play the next team on the schedule. And the Panthers are kind of the perfect candidate for a trap game this week. It’s an early kickoff with the Cowboys traveling east. The Panthers, while owning the worst record in the NFL, are not completely devoid of talent. More than that, they’re playing under a ton of pressure after reports earlier in the week about needing a strong finish to the season in order for head coach Frank Reich to keep his job.
Of course, none of that is going to make a bit of difference if the Cowboys really do drop this game. That will be an embarrassment no matter how you slice it. But it’s a reminder that even the worst teams still have something to play for, and this game in particular looks like exactly the type of game that can trip these Cowboys up. They’ve already fallen into a trap once, with the Cardinals. A big win over the Panthers would at least be evidence that they’ve learned their lesson. And with the way this schedule is constructed right now, that’s really all we can ask for this week.
Tom: I do think the way they got the Giants down and kept them down shows that they are not that susceptible to a trap game. Obviously if I am wrong the media and fan base alike will combust, but I don’t think that is at all likely. Letting Carolina hang around in this game seems more of a possibility. That would, for me at least, raise very similar concerns. One thing I really liked was how they put their foot on New York’s neck and never really let up. That needs to be the intent each and every week. Kick them when they are down. Don’t tell Neville Gallimore, though. And just as an aside, there seems to be a question about just how hard the Panthers will fight to keep Reich’s job.
Seriously though, this team needs a killer instinct to go with what is looking more and more like one of the elite rosters in the NFL, and a head coach that is really getting a handle on how to use them. That’s one thing I am looking for this Sunday.
David: Mike McCarthy has generally been one to preach about the killer instinct since arriving in Dallas, though it hasn’t always manifested itself on the field. I believe with his increased involvement with this offense that’s been able to permeate this roster a bit more, and it really shows in some of these lopsided wins they’ve recorded this year.
I think one aspect that’s flying under the radar in this game is the fact that they’ll have to travel home and prepare for a divisional opponent just three days later. I’m not here to sing the Commanders’ praises but they’ve only had two games this year decided by multiple scores. They don’t go down without a fight, and especially not against a division rival.
Historically, the Cowboys have struggled with the team they play right before the Thanksgiving game. With this year’s game coming against such a beleaguered team, I could see McCarthy taking the approach of trying to bury the Panthers early in order to get the starters some rest ahead of the quick turnaround. Perhaps that approach would resonate with the players, and motivate them to be playing their very best right from the start.
Tom: That’s exactly what I think they need to do. And then next week, we can worry all over again about how much we really know this team.