Picture this: the Cowboys are riding high at 2-0 and coming off two straight dominant performances that suddenly has everyone in the national media giving them credit instead of finding reasons to detract from them. Now, they go on the road as 12-point favorites to face a winless team, believed to be tanking, that Dallas has beaten just once in their last seven meetings.
Is there a more textbook definition of a trap game?
Call it a trap game, call it battered fan syndrome, call it whatever. The Cowboys are heavily favored to win this game, and why shouldn’t they be? The Cardinals brought in a new general manager and head coach in the offseason, and were quickly forced to surrender a draft pick after tampering to hire said coach. On top of that, quarterback Kyler Murray is still out as he recovers from an ACL injury suffered last year, and the Cardinals decided at the 11th hour to cut veteran Colt McCoy - who had taken all first team quarterback reps all preseason - and trade for journeyman Josh Dobbs.
Now Dobbs, who had just two career starts to his name, is the starter in Arizona with a first-time head coach, first-time offensive coordinator, and the youngest overall coaching staff in the NFL. Coincidentally, Dobbs’ first career start came against the Cowboys a year ago when the heavily injured Titans rested most of their starters to prep for a Week 18 game that effectively amounted to a division title contest. Dobbs completed just 51% of his passes against the Cowboys with a touchdown, an interception, and a fumble lost.
Now, Dobbs’ has three more starts under his belt, though he has yet to win a game. He’s come close in both games, though. The Cardinals played surprisingly close against the Commanders in Week 1, taking a 16-10 lead into the fourth quarter before being outscored 10-0 to lose by four. Last week, they went up 20-0 on the Giants by halftime before a furious comeback led by Daniel Jones resulted in a three-point loss for the Cardinals.
It’s understandable why so many out there think this Cardinals team is tanking, as every move that’s been made by this front office has suggested as much. Even if that is true, the players are clearly not in on it. They’ve showcased grit and toughness against two objectively better teams and come within inches of pulling off an upset in consecutive weeks.
It’s more than fair to question the value of those wins, as the Commanders haven’t had a winning season since 2016 while the Giants were obliterated 40-0 in Week 1. But the Cardinals haven’t been as terrible as expected, ranking 18th in total team DVOA and 22nd in total EPA/play. That’s still not going to constitute a good team, but they’re far from being the cake walk that many expected them to be.
The problem for Arizona is that the Cowboys have been, far and away, the best team in the league through two weeks. They also haven’t faced a murderer’s row of opponents, but the Cowboys lead the league in both DVOA and EPA/play by a considerable margin. They’ve faced below-average teams in consecutive weeks and crushed them both times. By every available measure, the Cardinals are on the same level as the Giants and Jets, so it makes sense why the Cowboys are heavy favorites.
However, this is the NFL and the old trope of any given Sunday exists for a reason. The Cowboys are trending towards seeing the return of several injured players this week, including Tyler Smith, Donovan Wilson, and Brandin Cooks. That could only further inflate their confidence against this team, thereby setting the stage even more for a trap game.
The Cowboys can’t overlook the Cardinals, and they really shouldn’t given the history between these two. As mentioned earlier, the Cowboys are 1-6 in their last seven games against the Cardinals, and they’ve yet to beat them with Mike McCarthy as the head coach. There’s also a bit of familiarity with the coaching staff, as head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis were both on the Eagles staff the last two years.
Playing the game in Arizona adds another layer of difficulty, as the natural grass in State Farm Stadium has a habit of making things tough on players who aren’t accustomed to it. Look no further than the most recent Super Bowl for evidence, or the fact that the Cowboys are 2-3 in that stadium despite being favored in all five games.
Everyone and their mother is expecting another beatdown from the Cowboys, and conventional logic suggests that’s exactly what will happen, but this game will be a good test for the team’s ability to handle success and not get too high on their own hype machine. Good teams beat bad teams easily. If the Cowboys don’t take care of business in this one, it will be telling about their psyche this season.