Can the Dallas Cowboys Keep Ahead of the Pack in the Floundering NFC East?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 22, 2013

A different team has won the NFC East in each of the last four years. According to that cycle, the Dallas Cowboys are due to capture the division title for the first time since 2009. Based on what took place Sunday in Dallas, Charlotte and Washington, and Thursday in Philadelphia, the 'Boys could be primed to strengthen their grip on the league's most popular division before we reach the second quarter of the 2013 NFL regular season.

Dallas crushed the St. Louis Rams, 31-7, in a near-perfect performance. Quarterback Tony Romo posted a passer rating of 137.2, running back DeMarco Murray had the second-best game of his career with 175 yards on the ground, and the defense held Sam Bradford in check while holding the St. Louis offense to just 35 rushing yards as the 'Boys moved to 2-1.

Elsewhere in the NFC East, the New York Giants and Washington Redskins both fell to 0-3 in appalling fashion. New York was shut out for only the second time in 17 years, falling 38-0 to the same Carolina Panthers team that the Giants hammered this very same weekend last year. Robert Griffin III was still rusty as the Redskins fell at home to a Detroit Lions team that won just four games in 2012. The 'Skins have now surrendered more yardage during the first three weeks than any other team in NFL history.

History is on neither of those teams' side. Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990, only three teams—the 1992 San Diego Chargers, the 1995 Detroit Lions and the 1998 Buffalo Bills—have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.

The Philadelphia Eagles are dealing with growing pains as they make major offensive and defensive transitions while getting acclimated to a brand-new coaching staff. They've lost back-to-back games and the defense is becoming a major issue. With a trip to Denver on the schedule for Week 4, they're likely to fall to 1-3. 

Those three teams are now 0-6 this year against non-divisional opponents. In other words, if they aren't beating each other, they're beating nobody. In the Giants' last four games outside of the division dating back to December of last season, they've been outscored, 146-37, in four losses. 

The point being that Dallas is now in a position in which it can take total control of this disaster of a division. The Cowboys might not be 3-0, but their only loss came by a single point on the road in an out-of-conference game. They have yet to put together a poor performance and are coming off of one of their best all-around efforts of the Jason Garrett era.

We should have seen this coming. Despite being ravaged by injuries on defense, Dallas was playing excellent football during the second half of the 2012 season, and that extremely talented roster remained intact in the offseason. They're young and getting better, and they're healthy now, too. Since the start of November 2012, the Cowboys are 7-5. During that same stretch, the Eagles are just 2-10 and the Giants are just 3-8. 

That doesn't mean this'll be easy. You never want to count Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin out, no matter how dire things look, and Dallas is still only a single game up on the unpredictable and dangerous Eagles. Consistency hasn't been one of its trademarks, and we could be singing an entirely different tune if things go awry next Sunday in San Diego. 

Dallas coasted in Week 3 because it found the running game, easing pressure on Romo, who was sacked only once and thus had his second consecutive interception-free performance. The Cowboys also controlled the pace because the defense was dominant, stopping the Rams on 12 of 13 third downs and sacking Bradford six times. Not bad for a D that ranked below the median with only 34 sacks last season, despite the presence of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer (who wasn't even active against the Rams).

But they were 2-1 at this exact same point in 2011. Right on queue in Week 4, they were leading the Lions, 20-3, at halftime at home before Romo threw three second-half interceptions in a classic Dallas implosion. Twelve weeks into that season, the 'Boys were leading the NFC East with a 7-4 record, but they blew that by losing four of their last five. They've won back-to-back games only twice since that point.

It's September and the season is longer than it looks on the calendar. Not only do they have to get past the Chargers in Week 4, but if they don't, their backs will already be up against the wall as they deal with consistency questions heading into a very difficult Week 5 matchup with Denver. The schedule also toughens up later, with December meetings with Chicago and Green Bay looming.

Injuries happen, too, and they've happened to key Cowboys cogs like Murray, Sean Lee, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant quite frequently. In fact, Austin's infamous hamstring issue sent him to the sideline Sunday against St. Louis. The Cowboys don't merely have to stay good, but they also need luck on their side. 

Dallas has managed to fight through a lack of consistency and a slew of injuries to earn a chance to take part in a do-or-die intra-divisional matchup on the final Sunday night of the last two regular seasons. This division always seems to come down to the wire, but now "America's Team" has a chance to change that.