Cowboys best in show among NFC East dogs

ARLINGTON, Texas — One of the benefits to playing in the worst division in the NFL is that a 2-1 start feels like some sort of breakthrough. And that’s exactly where the Dallas Cowboys find themselves after a 31-7 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams.

This game was basically decided by halftime, although I suppose an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter made it official for the Cowboys. That it made it possible for players to do a little scoreboard watching the rest of the way. The Eagles had already gone belly up against the Chiefs on Thursday to fall to 1-2 for the season. On Sunday, the New York Giants dropped to 0-3 after being pummeled 38-0 by the Panthers. Everyone wants to hang their hats on those two Super Bowl wins in the past six seasons, but this Giants team has been shattered by injuries along the offensive line and in the secondary. Helps is not on the way.

The Redskins were at least competitive in a 27-20 loss to the Lions, but they’ve also fallen to 0-3. Given how the Eagles, Giants and Redskins have played, it’s hard to imagine any of them catching fire. The Redskins went on a great run in the second half 20of the 2012 season, but that was fueled by a healthy Robert Griffin III. The post-knee construction RG3 looks nothing like the 2012 NFC Rookie of the Year.

Following Sunday’s game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones insisted he wasn’t aware how his division rivals fared. When I informed him of the Giants’ score, he had a look of disbelief on his face.

“I think that before we start putting dirt on the coffin, I think we better wait and see some more games played,” Jones said. “This division could turn out to be strong as horse radish. It’s early.”

For now, the once-proud NFC East is the laughingstock of the league. Based on the early eye-test, it looks like nine wins could clinch a division title. On Sunday, the Cowboys’ defense had one of its most dominant performances in years. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford hadn’t been sacked once in the first two games. Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick changed that less than three minutes into the game when he came on a blitz.

The Cowboys would have five more sacks, including two from the club’s new unofficial sacks leader, DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys’ defense only allowed 18 yards (one first down) in the first half. It was the fewest yards allowed by the Cowboys since they gave up 17 to the Seahawks Oct. 11, 1992. The Cowboys started winning Super Bowls soon after that, but let’s not get carried away. Dallas did become the first team from the NFC East to win a game outside the division. They will arrive in San Diego next Sunday with a chance to take a commanding lead in the division. By the way, the folks at Elias reported this is the first time the Redskins and Giants have been 0-3 at the same time. When you have such dubious history in the making, the Cowboys need to capitalize.

Players and coaches were asked Sunday about an NFL Network report indicating that defensive tackle Jason Hatcher called out quarterback Tony Romo in practice last week for checking out of a running play and then throwing an interception. Everyone admitted that Hatcher delivered a powerful message to his teammates during a team meeting, but they were denying that he singled out the quarterback.

“I thought Hatcher’s words after practice were directed at our entire football team,” Garrett said after Sunday’s game. “I think it was a real good sign of leadership by him. He’s one of the most well-respected players in our locker room. Certainly our guys responded the right way.”

Surrounded by at least 30 reporters at his locker, Hatcher deflected questions about his speech. But he did address the situation in the NFC East.

“I just found about it,” he said. “I don’t watch a lot of highlights or anything. If I do [watch TV], I’m watching “Breaking Bad.”

“Just because you were great last year doesn’t mean you’re going to be great this year,” he said of the standings. “In basketball, you can buy a championship. In football, you can’t buy a Super Bowl.”

Hatcher was a disruptive force against the Rams. He had a sack and three quarterback hurries. Hatcher added the “cashin’ out” hand signal to his usual sack  celebration. Perhaps he’s sending a message to Jerry about a potential contract situation.

The Cowboys will face the Chargers, Broncos, Redskins and Eagles over the next four weeks. They have a legitimate shot to win three of those four games and have a 5-2 record in late October. That would likely give them a comfortable lead in the division race.

Maybe the winner of the NFC East won’t be as battle-tested as usual, but the Cowboys simply need to qualify for the playoffs. This is certainly an imperfect team, but that doesn’t make it different from most teams in the league.

If only the Cowboys could schedule the Rams on an annual basis. Just the sight of them seems to ignite the running game. DeMarco Murray had 253 yards against the Rams his rookie season (2011). On Sunday, the Rams held him to 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

The Cowboys need to remember whatever Hatcher said in that speech. This team’s not stronger than, say, horse radish. But through three games, it appears to be the class of the NFC East.