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Cowboys point/counterpoint: The meaning of a win over the Cardinals

Can we really learn anything from this game?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys
It could be another big day for CeeDee Lamb, but so what?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

We all know about trap games. That has been a recurring theme for the Dallas Cowboys against their upcoming opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. But this year just feels like Dallas will not fall into one. The team has been clearly dominant over their first two opponents, the New York Giants and New York Jets, and Arizona looks an awfully lot like those teams. They even suffered a loss against the Giants, who fell to the Cowboys 40-0, when the G-men came back from 21 points down to get a win.

Perhaps we are tabulating fetal domestic fowl prior to the breaking of the eggshells, but let’s be honest. We all expect another easy win for Dallas. If that happens, though, what does it tell us about the Cowboys? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have differing views.

David: I’ve been one of the more ardent Mike McCarthy supporters since he arrived in Dallas, but even under his watch these Cowboys haven’t been immune to trap games. In 2021, they got obliterated by a Broncos team that had just traded away their best player the week prior. Last year, they lost to a 5-8 Jaguars team and a Packers team that had lost five in a row. Granted, Dallas won 12 games in both of those years and were largely successful throughout the year, but trap games haven’t gone away under McCarthy.

Sure, none of those teams were as bad on paper as the Cardinals appear to be, even after playing competitive in two straight games against the Cowboys’ rivals. And the Cowboys have blasted two consecutive teams that they were favored to beat, so conventional logic suggests that they’ll do the same this week. But that gives all the more reason why this figures to be a perfect trap game for the Cowboys. If they can go on the road and win this one in convincing fashion, it will tell me a whole lot about their psyche and focus. Avoiding the trap game isn’t something we’ve seen this team do yet, which is why it would matter if they do it this week.

Tom: I may be a bit too confident in the head coach, but I get the feeling he has this team mentally prepared and will come in with a game plan to exploit the Cardinals, especially after seeing how the Giants ripped off 24 unanswered points. Nor is there any doubt that Dan Quinn will once again unleash his dogs to terrify and cow the Arizona offense. I just don’t feel like this is going to be a repeat of those past examples you cited.

The problem is, I don’t think this game changes anything in our understanding of who this Dallas team really is. So far, they are doing exactly what good teams are supposed to do, dominate inferior squads. There will remain an unease about what the team can do against a quality opponent, and that may not show up until the fifth game of the season against the San Francisco 49ers. (No disrespect to the New England Patriots, but I’m expecting another win there, although perhaps not so quite so easy.)

The Cowboys did not play their starters in preseason, but they opened the regular season looking as prepared and ready as any team in the league. The talent is incredibly deep on defense, and as we have seen with the absences of Tyler Smith and Brandin Cooks, it isn’t too bad on offense, either. Dak Prescott has looked very sharp most of the time in the Texas Coast offense. We just don’t know if that will hold up when the opposing roster is much closer to their own level of talent. For me, it leaves us in a holding pattern for at least another week.

David: I don’t expect many people to go along with me on this, because getting a win over these Cardinals is the expectation, the bare minimum standard, and that’s fine. But we’ve only seen two weeks of football from all 32 clubs, and the Cardinals have taken a lead into the fourth quarter in every game they’ve played. To me, that says this is a team that can’t just easily be beat, and they certainly won’t roll over for the Cowboys.

This is also a Cardinals franchise that, as of late, has had the Cowboys’ number. Dallas is 1-6 in their last seven meetings with the Cardinals, and the last one in particular was billed as the Cowboys’ last chance of the 2021 season to beat a good team before getting to the playoffs, and they lost. It’s also being played in a grass stadium that’s known for being a difficult surface to play on, as the Chiefs and Eagles found out in the most recent Super Bowl. In fact, the Cowboys are 2-3 in State Farm Stadium despite being favored in every single one of those games.

Here we are again, the Cowboys being favored to win in that stadium against this team. All conventional logic says they will, and I think that’s very likely to be the case. To be very clear, the Cowboys absolutely should win this by at least 13 points (they’re currently favored by 12.5 points). All I’m saying is that this is the type of game they tend to let slip away from them, whether it ends in an outright loss or a closer-than-it-should’ve-been win. So if the Cowboys do go in there and win as big as they are supposed to, that will be a change of pace for these Cowboys, and certainly something worth celebrating, even if it won’t rank among their most impressive wins of the year when all is said and done.

Tom: I just don’t see this as that big an indicator of the real abilities of this team. The best thing is that it can let Dallas keep putting wins in the bank for when the sledding does get harder. The Cardinals may look like a scrappy team with those fourth-quarter leads, but they got out-scrapped by the Giants. I just don’t expect much at all in the way of meaningful indicators. Avoiding an obvious trap situation should be the norm, not a significant step forward. And I’ve already seen enough to think this year’s version of the team is very hard-nosed. As McCarthy himself said, this is no time to let off on the gas.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really pleased with what this team has displayed so far. I just expect this game to be more of the same, and we should take it as that. That is, of course, if they don’t fool us all and mess this up.

David: You’re right, avoiding the obvious trap game should be the norm, but it hasn’t been for the Cowboys despite all of the other very positive things McCarthy has done in his time in Dallas. That’s why a big win here would mean something to me, and why it should mean something to everyone else too. I mean, a win on Sunday will in no way impact my belief in whether or not this team can go where no Cowboys team has gone before (this century). Beating the Cardinals by 20 won’t suddenly make me or anyone else believe they’re any more legit than we already think they are. But barely beating them, or losing to them, will change a whole lot.

At the end of the day, of course, a win is a win is a win. And I’ll ultimately be satisfied with any type of a win, because it gets the Cowboys that much closer to the playoffs and, potentially, a first round bye. But with how both of these teams look so far, I think it’s fair to say that anything less than a spread-covering win would be at least a little bit of a disappointment.

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