In an up-for-grabs NFL, the Cowboys and Dak Prescott are building a case to be considered elite

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·NFL columnist
·5-min read
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Three weeks in the books and it’s a wildly interesting NFL, to say the least.

The Kansas City Chiefs are in last place in the AFC West and the Cincinnati Bengals are in first place in the AFC North. The Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos are undefeated. Sam Darnold has been good. Ben Roethlisberger has been bad. Aaron Rodgers has been both.

And somewhere in all that chaos, the Dallas Cowboys were rocked by some early roster attrition and somehow got better the past two weeks. Better on defense. Better on special teams. And more balanced and bullying than ever on offense. So much so that after Monday night — when a short-handed Dallas defense helped drill the Philadelphia Eagles 41-21 — the Cowboys look like they’ve got something cooking. Maybe even to the point of playing their way into the conversation of NFL elites after next week’s tilt against a surprisingly stout 3-0 Carolina Panthers team.

Why not? 

Dallas is one bad kicker day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from being undefeated. It also has an offense that entered this week in the top five in passing and rushing, suddenly finding meaningful (and playmaking) depth at running back and tight end. Even after the loss of star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, two other potentially elite players have suddenly emerged in cornerback Trevon Diggs and rookie linebacker/edge rusher Micah Parsons.

Sure, that all might sound hyperbolic after a resounding win over a banged-up Eagles team that might be mediocre at best. But it wasn’t just that Dallas dropped a number on Philadelphia — it was that the Cowboys didn’t even play their perfect game and still dominated from start to finish. Take away a few of the coaching mistakes and it’s conceivable Dallas puts up another 10-14 points. 

Sep 27, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) makes a leaping throw against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) makes a leaping throw against the Philadelphia Eagles during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It was a performance built on the legs of a deep backfield that has gashed the past two opponents and a passing offense that is flourishing through Dak Prescott’s near perfection and a diversification of weapons that now includes tight ends and third- and fourth-level wideouts.

For Dallas, this was the dream scenario in Prescott’s return, a fantasy of running the ball with authority behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, utilizing a healthy offensive line that has typically set the tone during the peaks of Prescott’s days as a starter. The Cowboys also have a quarterback capable of manufacturing offense when his best receivers are taken away. That has happened at various times this season, with Michael Gallup being lost to injury and teams keying on stars Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Prescott’s response Monday was to spread big plays around to guys like tight end Dalton Schultz and wideout Cedrick Wilson, both of whom accounted for Prescott’s trio of touchdown passes against the Eagles.

As Prescott said of his home return on Monday night: “I feel like I’m playing the best I’ve ever played.”

He certainly looks like it, too. And while the development of the defense is going to be important, that array of offense is going to be an absolute must in an NFC that will be brimming with lethal firepower when the playoffs roll around. From the Los Angeles Rams and Matthew Stafford to the Buccaneers and Tom Brady to the Arizona Cardinals and Kyler Murray (not to mention Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers), Dallas is going to need the ability to boat race with virtually every top team to have a shot at making a Super Bowl run this season. It also might need to continue to overcome the occasional game management gaffe from head coach Mike McCarthy, who once again mismanaged his timeouts on Monday — this time failing to use them before the half, which likely cost Dallas additional points.

Leaving the McCarthy issues for another day, it would be a mistake to scoff at the idea that Dallas could build itself some Super Bowl momentum this season. From a playmaking standpoint, the defense is light years ahead of where it was last season, largely due to the influence of new coordinator Dan Quinn and the emergence of Diggs and Parsons, who seem to put themselves in the right spots every week. Eventually, Lawrence will return from his broken foot. And it’s possible that the unit will have actually grown and improved in its capabilities during his absence.

At the very least, it’s clear the Cowboys are now the NFC East favorites, having beaten the Eagles handily and watching the Washington Football Team and New York Giants fumble through the first three weeks of the season. Of course, now Dallas has to prove it can grapple with positive attention and expectations. A win over Carolina next week will draw a beaming spotlight, with visions of potentially running into the Week 7 bye with a 5-1 record.

That would be a remarkable turn in only one year, considering the 2020 season in Dallas was effectively vaporized by mid-October. That the Cowboys have come this far speaks to how much Prescott and a healthy offensive line meant to the franchise — and maybe even some resiliency under McCarthy that has come as a surprise.

Then again, it has been that kind of NFL season in September. So many certainties have been turned inside out, and so many low expectations have been exceeded. Dallas has experienced a little bit of it all, only to come out on the other side rolling.

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