Seemingly every year, when NFL analysts project who will win the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys get the majority of the first-place votes. However, since 2010, the Cowboys only put together one playoff season. After going 6-10 in 2010 following a playoff loss to the Vikings, the Cowboys went 8-8 three straight seasons. In 2014, with a healthy roster, Dallas won 12 games and won the NFC East. But, last season without 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray and forced to use four different starting quarterbacks, the Cowboys hit bottom, posting a 4-12 record.
Realizing they needed to improve their running game given the investment the team has put in the offensive line and the need for a young developmental quarterback given the advancing age of Tony Romo, Dallas used the fourth pick of the draft on running back Ezekiel Elliott and a fourth-round pick on quarterback Dak Prescott – two rookies who have vaulted the Cowboys to the best record in the NFL this season.
After losing the regular-season opener 20-19 to the New York Giants, the Cowboys have won 10 straight games to improve to 10-1. The biggest question is who has been more impressive – Prescott or Elliott?
After getting off to a slow start, Prescott has completed 70 percent of his passes or better seven times during the winning streak, has thrown at least one touchdown pass in the last nine games, with two or more in six games, and has a passer rating of 103.8 or above in nine of 10 games. He has thrown just two interceptions in 340 passes and hasn’t thrown a pick in any of the last four games. He has been much more than merely a game manager. He has been as consistent as any quarterback in the league, showing some explosiveness in the deep passing game while protecting the ball and not giving it away on turnovers.
Perhaps even more impressive has been Elliott. He has shown no signs of hitting the rookie wall. In 11 games, he has 243 carries for 1,199 yards and 11 touchdowns – an average of 22 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown in each game. At a time when few teams have a true bell-cow running back, Elliott has proved to be as dominant as any runner in the league. In his first two games, he ran 41 times for 134 yards. Since then, he hasn’t had less than 92 yards in any game and has topped 100 yards five times. He has been deadly consistent and has found ways to make plays every week.
Prior to Elliott or Prescott arriving, the Cowboys already had an established receiver corps. The biggest star is Dez Bryant, but he has missed all or part of five games this season and his numbers have been down – 33 catches for 550 yards and five touchdowns. He remains the primary big-play threat, averaging almost 17 yards per reception. Slot receiver Cole Beasley leads the team in receptions and yards with 58 catches for 647 yards and five TDs. Not far behind is veteran tight end Jason Witten, who has 52 catches for 553 yards and two touchdowns. Between the three of them, they have given Prescott three elite targets who can make plays and score touchdowns.
What has made the Dallas offense tick has been the concerted effort made to build a dominating offensive line. With 10-year veteran Doug Free at right tackle, from 2011-14, the Cowboys used three first-round picks on offensive linemen, taking left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, center Travis Frederick in 2013 and right guard Zach Martin in 2014. They have been dominant in both the run and pass game, allowing the Cowboys to average 4.8 yards a carry while averaging 33 rushes a game for 157 yards and scoring 19 rushing touchdowns. They have allowed Prescott to be sacked just 15 times in 11 games and have kept him clean throughout the season.
The biggest question mark coming into the season was the Cowboys defense, which struggled badly at times last season. But this year Dallas has allowed more than 23 points just twice and have dominated most of their opponents.
The line is led by defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Jack Crawford and tackles Terrell McClain and Tyrone Crawford. Coming off a season in which they were ranked 22nd against the run, Dallas is third against the rush, thanks in large part to the push the defensive line consistently gets and second-level tackling machine Sean Lee at linebacker.
If the Cowboys have a vulnerability on defense, it’s in the secondary. While it can be partially attributed to the pass defense and most notably the defensive backs, opposing quarterbacks have been forced to throw because Dallas has been ahead late in so many games. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 434 passes against the Dallas defense – an average of almost 40 a game – for 3,178 yards, 19 touchdowns, just four interceptions and a combined passer rating of 101.9.
The Cowboys have talent in the secondary, but they are often risk-takers that can alternately make big plays or get burned. At cornerback they have veterans Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr along with and 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne. At safety, second-year first-rounder Byron Jones has good speed, but too often gets out of position and can be burned over the top. He is joined by veteran Barry Church, who isn’t the fastest safety but can bring the lumber and deliver the knockout blow to receivers over the middle or in deep coverage.
As several Vikings players have pointed out this week, the Cowboys aren’t invincible, but you don’t get to be 10-1 by fluke. They are a very good team with playmakers who can make the game-changing play at any time. If the Vikings are going to beat Dallas and end their current 1-5 slide, it’s going to take a near-perfect game because the Cowboys can do a lot of damage and have the ability to wear down defenses with their ground attack and keep teams off the scoreboard defensively. The Vikings would like nothing better than to make a statement that they’re back in the playoff hunt, but the Cowboys aren’t a team that their last 10 opponents have been able to conquer so it will be a difficult task for Minnesota to come away with a win over a team that right now looks like the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.