The Cowboys are Super Bowl contenders (for real this time… seriously)

NFL: SEP 17 Jets at Cowboys
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Plus more winners and losers from Week 2 in the NFL.

Look, I get it. We all roll our eyes when it comes to anyone saying the Dallas Cowboys are for real. Year after year America’s Team is hyped to the moon at the first sign of success, only to falter and become the NFL equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

We’ve been conditioned to hate the hype. The Cowboys are a distillate of capitalism in the NFL. A team that gets the most primetime games because of ratings, even though we’re told national games are earned. An organization whose 8-8 quarterback will garner more discussion on TV and radio than an MVP candidate. It pulls back the veneer of artifice on the NFL that everything is about sport. We love to pretend it exists, and turns everything into something transactional — and that’s why it feels so disingenuous when people often say “this is the year,” because deep down we know there’s someone pulling the strings to make money off America’s Richest Team.

This year it’s different. It really, truly is. We might only have a two game sample to go off, but everything points to these 2023 Cowboys being the real deal.

It’s about so much more than the Giants and Jets, who pretty hapless franchises at this point in the season. Where Dallas is really shining is the ability to dominate back-to-back games in divergent ways, without showing a weakness in any of the three phases.

Against the Giants this came in the form of a balanced offense, because honestly they didn’t have to work very hard to get the win. In the game on Sunday vs. the Jets the Cowboys offense used the ever-present threat of Tony Pollard to open up the pass game, and despite facing one of the NFL’s best pass defenses they still managed to pick it apart. There was an assumed hangover that would come from transitioning away from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, but so far Dallas looks even more dangerous with Brian Schottenheimer at the helm, who has impressively orchestrated back-to-back performances.

All of this is a moot point without the Cowboys’ defense, which is frankly terrifying. Outside of some Garrett Wilson magic on Sunday the team hasn’t given up a big play in either game. The pass rush is so incredible that it’s masking the minor deficiencies in the secondary. Two weeks in a row this unit is so far ahead of NFL averages across all four rushers that the result is staggering.

When you see this level of pressure on average distance from QB and it’s coming from all four rushers it’s easy to write it off as offensive line failure, but in back-to-back weeks we have a defense that has made two above-average protection units look like college teams.

Micah Parsons in particular is playing at such a ludicrously high level that he has to be schemed against on every down. This is happening, and he’s still eating quarterbacks live — while the rest of the line are feasting too.

Every year the Cowboys have been hyped you can point to a clear reason why this won’t last. This is the first where it feels like Dallas is truly head and shoulders above the rest of the NFC right now, and honestly they might be the most complete team in the NFL right now. You really have to nitpick to find a problem with this team.

We’ll learn more in three weeks when the Cowboys face the 49ers, but for now this team is rolling.

Winner: Josh Allen

Now THAT’s how you respond to criticism. All week Allen was beating himself up for the overtime loss to the Jets, and for good cause on an uncharacteristic mistake-filled night. Needing to rebound, Allen made a statement in front of the Buffalo home crowd and the poor Raiders were the focus of his rage.

Las Vegas don’t have a great secondary, but they do have a very good pass rush — which failed to make much of an impact against Allen when he was in the zone. The Bills’ QB played a damn-near perfect game as he found nine different receivers and dominated every level.

The Bills are back on track, and they’re ready to now make a run at 2023 in earnest.

Loser: Brandon Staley

The Chargers head coach is unquestionably the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired this season, and rightfully so. This team is woefully underperforming on defense right now, and there’s nobody left to throw under the bus.

A close loss to the Dolphins in a shootout you can overlook for a week. Getting beaten in another shootout, this time against the Titans is almost unforgivable. Offensively the team is playing good football, but they’re allowing so many big plays that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Staley has become all talk and no action. The risk here is significant, as the team needs to ensure Justin Herbert doesn’t suffer the same fate as Philip Rivers, wasting his incredible talent on a team that can’t get its shit together to compete.

Winner: The … Buccaneers?!

The surprise here is warranted. In back-to-back weeks this team rolled two NFC North teams that people would have pegged to be easy winners pre-season.

Whatever is in the water in Tampa, it’s working.

We knew the strong points of this teams in the receiving game and their defensive standouts. The wild part of all this is just how damn good Baker Mayfield has been at running this offense. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin he’s found great rapport, and it’s a little too early for the hype to get too strong behind Baker at QB, but damn if there isn’t an air of Geno Smith’s turnaround in Seattle happening here.

If you told me after two weeks that the NFC South would be 5-1 (the Saints and Panthers play tonight) while the NFC North would be 2-6 it would have been impossible to believe. Yet, here we are.

Tampa might be a team to watch for the rest of this season, because they’re on fire.

Loser: The Texans’ pass defense

I think everyone was ludicrously hyped when Anthony Richardson rocked up on Sunday and looked like the second coming. The No. 4 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft was 6-of-10 for 56 yards prior to being ruled out due to the concussion protocol — passing numbers any fan would be thrilled with.

Then Gardner Minshew stepped in and ate Houston alive, ending the game 19-of-23 for 171 yards and a touchdown.

It doesn’t wholly diminish what Richardson did on Sunday, but it certainly tints those rose-colored glasses. The truth is that the Texans are really, really, horrifically bad at stopping the pass. In Week 1 the team gave up a meager 169 yards to Lamar Jackson, seemingly having a solid defense — but that evaporated in Week 2 as they allowed 227 efficient yards through the air en route to a 31-20 loss.

We need to pump the brakes on the Anthony Richardson hype train for one more week. Meanwhile it’s not all bad news for the Texans because …

Winner: C.J. Stroud

This is still well within sample size territory, but there should be more hype behind what C.J. Stroud is doing at quarterback. What we’ve learned over the last two weeks is that it’s brutally difficult to throw for over 300 yards against the NFL’s new defacto two-high defense, and in two games he’s thrown for 626 yards, completing over 63 percent of his passes, and tossing two touchdowns.

There’s definitely elements to work on. Look at Stroud’s scatter chart from Sunday.

The Texans are doing a brilliant job making sure Stroud builds confidence in the offense. He’s not asked to do a great deal in terms of airing out the ball, and it’s paying big dividends. Long-term we want to see that scatter chart be less right-field heavy, because it’s clear right now that the rookie isn’t quite comfortable scanning the field and finding gains on his blind side.

Still, this is really solid work for Stroud’s second week in the NFL. Texans fans have every right to be hyped.

Loser: Russell Wilson

I don’t know if Russ is cooked, but he’s damn sure simmering. Look, there wasn’t anything functionally that wrong with Wilson’s game on Sunday, but the Broncos aren’t paying $242.5M over five years for “not functionally wrong.”

The Commanders are a good defensive team, but the excuses are gone at this point. Denver mortgaged their entire future to land a franchise quarterback who just got beaten by a team with Sam Howell at quarterback, a fifth round draft pick making SIXTY times less money.

A season to get used to Denver wasn’t the answer. Getting a new offensive line wasn’t the answer. Sean Payton wasn’t the answer. Who cares if your passer rating is over 100 if the only decent offense you can generate are deep passes on busted coverage to Marvin Mims Jr.

Yes, this came down to the two point conversion and a questionable non-call on pass interference. It got to this point because of dumb luck on a weird Hail Mary that should have been batted down. The Commanders were able to come back in the first place because Russ couldn’t adapt when Washington took away the deep pass.

The Broncos are now 0-2. This team is broken. There are a million ways they could get better, but it’s difficult when so much of your cap is being committed to a QB who just can’t get the job done.

This content was originally published here.

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