Over the first two weeks of the 2021 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys have experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Facing a pair of contending teams in the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Cowboys have won one game and lost one, both on late field goals.
The Cowboys have discovered something else over those two games, however—something encouraging. Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense have played as advertised, and the defense has been significantly better than last year's porous unit, even if it didn't show up in the opener.
If the Cowboys can avoid catastrophic injuries, the NFC East is theirs for the taking.
Offensively, it starts with Prescott. If he faced any questions regarding his return from a fractured ankle, they have been answered.
Over the first two weeks of the 2021 season, Prescott has completed 76.5 percent of his passes. He's averaging 320 passing yards per game, which puts him on pace for 5,440 yards for the season. He has three touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 99.1 after dueling with two of the league's best signal-callers in Tom Brady and Justin Herbert.
Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy didn't mince words. In his opinion, so long as Prescott is under center, the Cowboys have a chance to win any given week.
"Just to make the statement: When Dak lines up, we have a chance to win the game," McCarthy said. "That's the type of player he is. He clearly demonstrates that not only on Sundays but the way he approaches it each and every day. That's what you look for in your franchise quarterback."
Of course, a quarterback is only as good as the talent around him. Prescott has plenty, including arguably the best WR corps in the league. Second-year pro CeeDee Lamb is the most targeted wideout in the league after two weeks. Amari Cooper (who is battling a rib injury suffered last week) lit up the Buccaneers with a 13/139/2 line in Week 1. Michael Gallup is on injured reserve with a calf injury, but the hope is he'll return in October.
The offensive line isn't the elite unit it once was and has seen some shuffling. But it hasn't been a liability either, and guard Zack Martin said he's sure Dallas can succeed in the trenches.
"I'm confident in whatever combination's out there that we can get the job done and really thrive," Martin said.
Then there's the two-headed rushing attack of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Elliott has the rushing titles, fame and fat salary. But Pollard notched the Cowboys' first 100-yard rushing game of 2021, gashing the Chargers for 109 yards on 13 carries.
"I see it as a great asset to this team. You don't have an issue. We can have more carries or more touches by the running back, and in my opinion, will. Because both the players are outstanding out of the backfield as receivers, and quite a threat. When you see (Kellen) Moore, our coordinator, doing the job he did to neutralize (the Chargers) defense, you see what getting the ball out quick, getting the ball outside to those backs can do."
Add it all together, and you have the league's fourth-ranked offense. It ranks seventh in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders—two spots ahead of division rival Washington.
It's no surprise the Dallas offense is potent. What was a surprise was Dallas' defensive performance last week against the Chargers. Facing a team with no shortage of offensive firepower without their best edge-rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys surrendered just 17 points and logged a pair of sacks and takeaways.
In that game, Dallas may have stumbled on a recipe to get even better defensively. With Lawrence and Randy Gregory sidelined, the Cowboys moved rookie linebacker Micah Parsons to the edge. Not only did the former Penn State standout hold his own, but he also turned in one of the best performances by a first-year edge-rusher in years.
Parsons has no qualms about continuing in that role, and he's looking forward to getting after Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium on Monday night.
"Every quarterback that's on the season is on the hit list," he told reporters. "I want all of them. Herbert was just the guy I had that week. But Hurts, he's on the hit list now too. You got to look at it like you're trying to be the Terminator out there."
Hasta la vista, baby.
Parsons isn't the only player the Cowboys have defensively. Cornerback Trevon Diggs has made strides in his second season, and linebacker Jaylon Smith rebounded from a decreased role in the opener to lead Dallas in stops against the Bolts.
If Parsons can come close to replacing Lawrence's pass-rushing production, it's a game-changer for the Cowboys. The Dallas defense doesn't have to be lights-out. It just has to prevent every game from turning into a 38-35 shootout. Prescott and the offense can take care of the rest.
Entering the season, this writer viewed Washington as the team to beat in the NFC East. But Washington's supposedly dominant defense has been average, and the team now has a No. 1 quarterback in Taylor Heinicke who has started all of three NFL games.
After watching the Philadelphia offense pitch and lurch its way to 11 points last week against San Francisco, it's clear the Eagles don't have the firepower on that side of the ball to be a contender. The 0-2 New York Giants are an error-prone mess with five starting offensive linemen who have aspirations of being matadors.
The NFC East comes down to two teams—Dallas and Washington. While Washington has an edge defensively, through two games it appears Dallas has an even bigger one on offense.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. The Cowboys have seen Gallup and Lawrence suffer injuries, and we saw how quickly things came off the rails last year when Prescott broke his ankle. The upcoming schedule features some tough matchups, including meetings with the surprising 2-0 Carolina Panthers in Week 4 and a contest with the similarly undefeated Denver Broncos on Nov. 7.
But both those games are at AT&T Stadium, as is Monday's winnable tilt with the Eagles. Parsons looks the part of a true impact player to anchor the defense, and the offense is chewing up yards both through the air and on the ground. Dallas has the talent to win the division, and we saw the team give the Buccaneers all they could handle in Tampa.
No NFL team is more polarizing than Dallas. The notion of the Cowboys as NFC East front-runners will please a great many people immensely and give an equal number indigestion.
But at this point in the 2021 campaign, that's what they are.