The Dallas Cowboys are (very) beatable
When quarterback Joe Flacco implied, after after a 27-17 loss to the Cowboys, that his Ravens should have won Sunday's game, he was operating on two levels. The first was delivering a clear, if somewhat half-hearted, rebuke to those who've said over the past few weeks that Flacco doesn't show enough emotion. (It speaks to Flacco's lack of passion that his idea of passion is saying “we should beat this team” and then, because he really wants you to know he means it, adding “I'm not kidding.”) The second is something Flacco may have touched on accidentally. Though he likely believes saying the Ravens are good enough to beat the Cowboys is a proclamation that Baltimore is on the top-tier of NFL teams along with the Cowboys, there's another way to interpret it, if indirectly: What if the Cowboys aren't that good in the first place?
The Dallas Cowboys aren't that good, at least they haven't proved it yet. Saying “that good” is in reference to their 9-1 record, seeming offensive indestructibility and status as favorites in the NFC. The truth is the record is soft, the offense is vulnerable and they're a clear second behind Seattle as the rightful favorite to win the NFC. None of that excludes Dallas from the Super Bowl hunt or takes away from the studly rookie seasons for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott or suggests the defense will be the team's downfall. It's merely a conclusion that's impossible to argue with after you go in depth at the Dallas schedule.
In Week 1 the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants, the best team (record wise) they've faced this season. In Week 2, Dallas survived to beat Washington, the second-best team (record wise) they've faced this season. The rest of the games — Chicago, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore — have all been against teams currently without a winning record. They caught Cincinnati and Green Bay at the start of their downfalls. Philadelphia is a house-money team in 2016 that's cashed in their chips for the season. Cleveland and San Francisco are the dregs of the league, and Pittsburgh or Baltimore will be a playoff team, though with both tied at 5-5, they're hardly inspiring much excitement anywhere, least of all in Pittsburgh or Baltimore.
That's a 1-1 record against teams above .500 and a 8-0 record against teams at or below .500. It's still an impressive feat — only the Raiders can boast a perfect record against the same level of teams this year. But while the Raiders are another fine football team turning it around in 2016 and harboring legitimate playoff hopes, it's damning the Cowboys with faint praise to lump them in with Jack Del Rio's “7-2 but could be 5-4” team.
Before the season started, Dallas had the third-easiest strength of schedule, a stat that's barely changed over the course of the season. Through Week 10, the Cowboys had played the fourth-easiest schedule. (Improvements by New York and Washington have been neutralized by declines in Cincinnati, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.)
We've found out that Dallas is a team that doesn't play down to its competition and plays close games against division opponents. (Its net points in regulation vs. NFC East teams is plus-3). In its biggest non-division game, Dallas played the Game of the Year against the Steelers, earning a win thanks to some late-game heroics by Elliott. The rest? It's all schedule ephemera.
That changes now. Of the Cowboys' last six games, four are against teams with a record above .500, and the other two opponents are both 5-5. Three of those six games are division matchups, and all six are against teams with legitimate playoff hopes through the first 10 games of the season.
The Dallas Cowboys deserve to be 9-1 and have earned the best record in the NFL by beating teams they were supposed to, holding on against teams more evenly matched and sneaking away with two out of three games in the division. It's all in the rear view now.
The season begins Thursday with a major division test, followed by road games at Minnesota and New York. Happy holidays.