What if I had told you back in August that the Dallas Cowboys would have the best record in the NFL after 10 weeks despite Tony Romo playing exactly zero snaps? What if I had told you they’d be 8-1 with Tyron Smith missing two games and Dez Bryant sitting out three due to injury?
It’s pretty safe to say you’d spit out your morning coffee and shout profanity while checking to make sure planet Earth was still spinning properly on its axis.
Well, that’s exactly where we are in the season with the Cowboys currently sitting atop not only the NFC standings but all of the NFL. They’ve been the best story of the year as two rookies – Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott – have taken the league by storm, emerging as MVP candidates.
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But for as good as the Cowboys have been, are they the best team in the NFL as their record indicates? You could easily make the case that they are, as you could for the Seattle Seahawks. The NFC will likely come down to these two teams, with the Patriots waiting on the other side in the AFC.
However, the Cowboys are better than both.
Dallas is the NFL's only eight-win team, boasting the best point differential in the league (plus-88). That number is even better than the one put up by the high-powered Patriots, who have a differential of plus-78. Surprisingly, the Cowboys have actually scored more points than New England. The Patriots are known for being a team that can run up the score at will, but Dallas is statistically better.
The biggest difference? The Cowboys' offensive line.
Success in the NFL is often determined by a team’s play in the trenches. Dallas doesn’t have the best defensive line in the league, but the guys blocking for Elliott and Prescott are the best in the league by a wide margin. They allow Prescott — remember, he's a rookie — to sit back in the pocket with a great deal of comfort, giving him time to read the defense, go through his progressions and make the best decision with the football.
They're a big reason Dallas has been so successful offensively, and they deserve plenty of credit for the way Prescott has played. He’s been sacked just 13 times (third-fewest in the NFL) and rarely faces pressure in the pocket. When he is rushed, it’s typically from the outside, which he’s shown a knack for eluding. He has the presence to step up and deliver a strike when a rusher comes off the edge, mainly because Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are so good in pass protection up the middle.
And it’s not just Prescott who the offensive line is making better. Elliott has emerged as the best running back in football, leading the NFL with 1,005 rushing yards – 175 more than the next closest (DeMarco Murray). His impact on the offense was seen on Sunday against the Steelers as he clinched the Cowboys’ victory with a game-winning 32-yard touchdown with nine seconds remaining.
He deserves plenty of praise for the play he made, but the offensive line is the unit that opened up that gigantic hole; Elliott compared it to the Red Sea parting. No team has a singular unit that’s as good as Dallas’ offensive line, and that’s what makes the Cowboys so good.
They’ve showed better balance than any team in the league. They’re fifth in total yards – 17th in passing and first in rushing – and have the ability to beat teams in a multitude of ways. Yes, the Patriots are balanced as well thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s stellar 2016 season, but he’s not Elliott.
By the same token, Julian Edelman isn’t Dez Bryant. Jason Witten isn’t Rob Gronkowski, but he’s become a safety valve for Prescott, making play after play in crucial moments just as he did on Sunday. Cole Beasley is a weapon in the slot similar to the way New England uses Edelman and Danny Amendola. He’s arguably the best third-down receiver in the league, and he gets overlooked by many outside of Dallas.
Obviously, the Patriots have a significant advantage at quarterback with Tom Brady – no one is saying they don’t. No one is Tom Brady but the man himself.
That doesn’t make New England a better team, though. You typically know what you’re going to get with both of these clubs. The Patriots are probably going to sling it around 30 times a game, mixing in a ground-and-pound rushing attack with Blount. The Cowboys will maul you up front and run the ball down your throat with Elliott. What are teams built to stop in today’s NFL? The pass, and it’s not even a question.
Teams are drafting more and more defensive backs as they move toward nickel base defenses. More often than not, there are five or six defensive backs on the field – not three linebackers. The Seahawks are tailor made to stop the pass and create turnovers with their secondary, which they did. Can they stop the run, too? Certainly, but the core of the defense is their secondary.
Two years ago, Dallas put together the perfect game plan to beat the Seahawks. The Cowboys, led by DeMarco Murray, marched into Seattle and beat the Seahawks at their place. How? By running the ball 36 times for 162 yards. Tony Romo protected the football (250 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions), and the Cowboys played bend-don’t-break defense.
What do the Cowboys do right now? Run the ball with great efficiency, protect the football and lock down teams in the red zone, forcing them to kick field goals.
The Patriots don’t have the secondary Seattle does, nor do they have the bulk up front to stop the run. And if the Cowboys were to play the Patriots right now, I think it’d be a very close game with Dallas coming out on top thanks to Elliott and the running game. They’ve been the most consistent team this season, whether they’re playing at home or on the road. And looking at the numbers, Dallas is actually better away from AT&T Stadium, as strange as it sounds.
Prescott is 5-0 on the road with 10 touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating is a whopping 119.5, topping his mark at home (91.4). Put simply, they’re built to win in hostile environments with their reliable ground game and Prescott’s poise under pressure in big spots.
At just about every position but quarterback and tight end, the Cowboys are better than the Patriots – particularly when both teams are healthy. When Morris Claiborne and Barry Church return from injury, Dallas’ secondary will return to the way it was playing earlier in the season. The Patriots don't force more turnovers than the Cowboys, nor do they generate as many sacks.
By no means do the Cowboys have an elite defense that comes anywhere close to Seattle's, but it's plenty good enough. It wasn't great in 2014, and Dallas won 12 games. This 2016 team has a special immeasurable quality about it that other teams don't.
The Cowboys have taken the title of best team in football from the Patriots, and not just because they have the better record. You won't find a more well-rounded squad in the NFL right now.