Week 2 in the NFC East has come and gone for most, but half of the division now faces an alarmingly uncertain future. Left in the wake of two late rallies on Sunday are the injuries to Tony Romo and Michael Vick, both veteran signal-callers charged with the duties of leading their squads to the top of the standings.
With the Dallas Cowboys relying on Romo to take on the team's captaincy and Vick carrying the Eagles' championship hopes on every scramble, the question now arises: Which injury will mean more to their respective teams as they try to establish legitimacy early in 2011?
After a gutsy performance in San Francisco, the Cowboys offense left the field with the season's first win etched into the standings. Romo fought through breath-taking pain caused by a broken rib and a punctured lung throughout much of the afternoon, dragging a wounded Dallas side to a thrilling victory over the 49ers.
But as the team retreated to the locker room after Dan Bailey's short field goal in overtime, they were followed by questions about the health of the entire unit, none more concerning than those about their leader.
The Cowboys now face the reality of a serious injury to their quarterback and what it could mean to their early-season contention. An early bye week will give Dallas a chance to heal, but not before they play host to surprising division leader Washington and an energetic Lions team.
Should Romo be unavailable, can the team stabilize and hold their season together until he returns? Fortunately for the Cowboys, the injury did not prevent the Cowboys from getting the win Sunday, something that can't be said for a division rival.
Just hours after Romo's injury, the Philadelphia Eagles seemed destined for a convincing win over the Falcons in Atlanta before disaster struck. Vick seemed poised to take the offense in for a 31-21 lead in the fourth quarter before he was dragged down and spun right into the body of offensive lineman Todd Herremans.
In the locker room with a concussion and neck injuries, No. 7 could only watch as the Eagles suffered their first loss of the young season.
Vick did struggle at times during his return to the city he left behind after serving prison time for federal dog fighting charges, but his dynamic play would have been the difference following a second-half scoring run. Young backup Mike Kafka was consistent enough to nearly lead the Eagles on one final drive to win the game, but Philadelphia fell to 1-1 despite his best efforts.
Concussions have become a challenge to return from in the NFL because of new guidelines surrounding a player's return to a very physical sport. There is a chance that Vick may not get back on the field through this week, a situation that would force the Eagles to rely on either Vince Young of Kafka at the helm.
So which team's starting quarterback is more important to early season success? There are a number of factors that will have an effect on whether each team can triumph in the coming weeks. With their leaders gone, both squads are going to need a complete effort to remain afloat in the early season.
Following Sunday's win, the Cowboys are now able to look ahead at two straight home games, as they are set to host the division-leading Washington Redskins and an energetic Detroit Lions team before heading into the bye week.
Both tilts would most likely have the Cowboys favored with a healthy Romo in the lineup. However, should Jon Kitna get the nod in the home opener, fans can expect a battle for Dallas just to stay in the game.
The experienced back-up is 4-5 in his nine starts as a member of the Cowboys, providing some hope that he can help shoulder the load. However, if Felix Jones is still ailing and Miles Austin does indeed miss the contest on Monday night, Kitna may not have what it takes to lead a depleted offense like Romo did against the 49ers.
The Redskins have proven that they can beat a division rival already this season, and their defense will feast on any of Kitna's mistakes.
Philadelphia faces the same challenge in the next seven days. They return home for their opener against the hated New York Giants, a team that limps into town with a makeshift defensive unit. Without Michael Vick to focus, New York can relax on containing the explosive quarterback and focus on stopping the run, forcing Kafka or Young to beat them in the air.
Looking a few weeks down the road, the Eagles play a series of very winnable games, as they line up against San Francisco at home before heading to Buffalo to face the upstart Bills. Just before their Week 7 bye, the must head to Washington to take on surprising starter Rex Grossman at FedEx Field.
Though it seems as though their schedule lends itself to easy wins for the 'Dream Team,' life without Vick erases all certainty.
If Vick is confined to the sidelines for any part of the season, the Eagles will seem to have a quarterback controversy on their hands. Mike Kafka, second-year signal-caller out of Northwestern, could get a look for the starting job after his solid performance in relief against the Atlanta Falcons.
Next on the depth chart would be Vince Young, a player the Eagles brought in due to his similarities to Vick's offensive style. His mobility has been hampered by a lingering hamstring issue, a condition that would need to be cleared on order to for Young to get the call.
The Eagles have had success with backup quarterbacks inserted into the lineup in the middle of the season that dates back to the Donovan McNabb era. Veterans like A.J Feeley, Koy Detmer and Jeff Garcia have all come on to fill in admirably for a fallen starter.
Michael Vick was the beneficiary of an injury to Kevin Kolb, leading Philadelphia to a divison title last season.
Dallas faces the immediate future with a much more known quantity. Jon Kitna is a seasoned NFL veteran who has posted a respectable 4-5 record as a starter in relief of the injured Tony Romo. Kitna, however, is not known for his winning ways after spending much of his career on struggling teams like the Bengals and Lions.
While the Cowboys know what they're getting in Kitna, that knowledge may not be so comforting. When the Redskins come to town sporting an aggressive defense, the 'Boys backup may lack the improvisational skills to escape a relentless blitzing scheme, leaving the offense sputtering in a crucial early-season matchup.
What could go on to determine which team needs their starter the most is how the offensive scheme changes with a replacement trying to fill the void. The edge here clearly goes to Philadelphia, as Michael Vick provides the Eagles with arguably the best rushing quarterback of all-time.
Though Vince Young plays with a lot of the same physical tools that Vick possesses, he has yet to demonstrate the ability to use them to take over a game on a consistent basis. Watching the Eagles starter weave in and out of trouble each week, Young can only hope to duplicate what Vick brings to the table as an all-purpose yards machine.
Should Mike Kafka get the start next week, the game plan may look a lot like what was drawn up for Kevin Kolb before he was shipped to Arizona. The Eagles will look to keep the ball on the ground to limit any potential mistakes and then use LeSean McCoy's success to aid Kafka's aerial attack.
Philadelphia has several explosive targets that can score from anywhere—the key is getting the ball into their hands.
With Jon Kitna at the helm, the Cowboys game plan doesn't waver from its traditional scheme. When healthy, they have an arsenal of weapons at all skill positions available for the quarterback to bring into the game. Kitna's ability to utilize what is at his disposal could be the difference in a win or loss in place of the injured Romo.
Fortunately for Dallas, only small alternations need to be made to the offensive strategy when Kitna is inserted into the game. A larger emphasis on screen plays with quick, pass-catching backs in Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray will certainly be seen along with Jason Witten acting as a security blanket for a quarterback who does not see many first-team reps.
When your leader on offense succumbs to an injury, the burden of keeping the team moving in the right direction falls on the entire unit. Unfortunately for the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo was not the only key member of the offense to leave San Francisco with an injury.
The Cowboys will be taking the field next Monday against the Redskins without the services of Miles Austin, the team's leading receiver. But that's not where the injury report ends of the 1-1 Dallas side.
Both Felix Jones and Jason Witten join the ailing Dez Bryant as skill players that are expected to start with significant injuries at home against Washington.
What this mean's for the Cowboys is simple: Jon Kitna will be forced to create more on his own should he get the start in place of Romo. When healthy, Dallas wields a full complement of offensive talent that could usually help a quarterback inserted into the lineup put points on the board.
Walking wounded, the amount of support will be curbed for Kitna, limiting the ceiling for the Cowboys on the offensive side of the ball.
Contrary to the situation in Dallas, the Philadelphia Eagles are loaded with a wealth of play-making ability that comes into this week relatively healthy. If Michael Vick cannot play this in the upcoming division clash against the Giants, his replacement will be handed a dangerous array of stars at each skill position.
LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and even Brent Celek can be considered standouts who could all share the responsibility of filling in for Vick.
Looking back in Philadelphia's recent history, Kevin Kolb was able to flourish in the absence of Donovan McNabb with the help of his No. 1 receiver. Jackson, a second-round selection out of California, used his speed and raw ability to find open space throughout Kolb's starts, taking the pressure off of the young replacement.
Having his number called in a situation similar to the one the Birds face now, look for Jackson to help out Mike Kafka or Vince Young in the event Vick is sidelined by his concussion.
The final part of any team looking to overcome an injury that could lead to a drop in point production is limiting their opponent's offensive impact on the game. Getting by without the starting quarterback adds pressure to the defense, as they can rarely afford to give the opposing offense the opportunity to put points on the board if their own team will struggle to match it.
Philadelphia would appear to hold a sizable advantage in this category with such skilled players on the outside to limit the pass. Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should combine to prevent a shootout, allowing the offense to settle in without much pressure.
The only concern for Philadelphia is their ability to stop the run. If the young linebacking corps cannot step up to prevent the opposing halfback from gashing the Eagles defense, the clock will run against the Birds and their inexperienced leader.
In this case, the entire defensive unit will need to keep their opponents out of the end zone, capitalizing on mistakes as much as possible.
The Cowboys are more of a defensive enigma, still adjusting to the new scheme under Rob Ryan. Turnovers have never come easy to a much-maligned Dallas D in the past, but they will need to step up if Kitna is under center.
A healthy Terrence Newman should go a long way toward taking relieving concerns about the secondary and provide a boost in turnover opportunities.
The Dallas offensive is expected to struggle to score if Kitna is taking the snaps on Monday night, evidenced by his 4-5 record. Expect the defense to play a very tight game in order to keep the 'Boys close in their rivalry game against the Skins.
Heading into Week 3, Dallas is hoping to avoid another letdown on national television and take a large step toward legitimacy.
After an analysis of what both teams can expect in the coming weeks with the chance their starting quarterback, it's clear that the Cowboys and Eagles are going to face a challenge against anyone. Losing a leader between the hashmarks and a voice in the locker room could cost either squad a chance at early season supremacy.
Looking at all the factors in play, Philadelphia seems better equipped to handle losing their starting quarterback. With a more stable defense and more options to replace the fallen Michael Vick, the Eagles could carry on during his absence, even if it does last more than one week.
Overall team health gives the Birds the boost they need to maintain productivity on offense no matter who is under center, as long as those pieces are able to produce.
After showing a great deal of heart against San Francisco, the Cowboys are very capable of willing their way to victory against a couple of growing teams. Kitna did show promise last season under Jason Garrett, but is by no means a permanent solution at quarterback.
Tony Romo has become the leader on and off the field for the first time in his career, but without him, Dallas loses some of the emotional momentum it gained in the win against the 49ers.
Michael Vick is as important to his team as any player around the league, but the unit he leads is one of the most talented groups in the NFL. He may put on a clinic at times with his physical ability, but the team does not hinge on his presence in a way comparable to the Cowboys need Romo.
Without No. 9, Dallas cannot contend in an intriguing division and competitive conference.
Only time will reveal the answer as their fans look on, sharing the same apprehension and doubts while watching their team navigate through this young season.