Despite roaring out of the gates through the first three weeks, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves falling back to Earth thanks to three consecutive defeats. While the first two were somewhat excusable given the opponents, last week’s faceplant against the previously winless New York Jets seemed to signify a team in total free fall.
Seemingly making matters worse was that Dallas was staring down a date with division rival Philadelphia on the schedule, and with first place in the NFC East hanging in the balance to boot. As such, the assumption of many around the country was that Carson Wentz and the Eagles were coming to Arlington to seize control of the division and push the Cowboys to the brink before the bye.
That assumption lasted all of about two minutes before the Cowboys defense forced a Dallas Goedert fumble and, for the first time this season, began a drive in enemy territory. Six plays later, Tavon Austin shook former Cowboy Orlando Scandrick and darted 20 yards to the endzone. Dallas would never look back.
In all, the Cowboys forced four turnovers on the day, including a rare interception delivered by safety Xavier Woods, which would set the offense up to begin its third drive of the day in Eagles territory. That particular drive may have ended up being short-lived and resulting in no points but it nevertheless rattled a struggling Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense.
The Cowboys may have been defense has been much-maligned in recent weeks, but Sunday night’s performance looked to be a revelation. Sure, the offense did its thing and scored 37 points but it was the defense who dictated the game throughout. Whether it was the early forced turnovers or holding the Eagles to just 10 points, seven of which wouldn’t have even occurred if not for a couple of silly penalties, they simply imposed their will against a talented opponent.
The Dallas Cowboys are loaded with talent. Add to that the way they ended last season and it’s easy to see why many around DFW expected the team to take that next step toward contention this year. Part of the problem thus far has certainly been injuries, and that issue continued to rear its head Sunday night with Leighton Vander Esch and Robert Quinn both exiting the game before halftime with injuries.
There’s also something to be said about this team’s mentality and the way they consistently underperform whenever they play as the favorite. Last season, they stumbled and bumbled through the first half of the year, compiling a 3-5 record before the Amari Cooper trade saved their season and made them a force. They rode that momentum to the Divisional Round of the playoffs before getting dominated by the eventual NFC champion Los Angeles Rams. After having handled the Seattle Seahawks the week before, Dallas was favored in that game despite being on the road.
At 3-5 last year, Dallas was written off by pretty much everybody; even the Amari Cooper trade was laughed off by many analysts at the time as a non-factor toward their playoff chances, but rather than fade, the team rallied as the consummate underdog.
When that hype reached a boiling point after the Saints game last year, Dallas got turned around and was thoroughly manhandled by Indianapolis on the road. Flash forward to this season and we can see that same trend after the hot start the first three weeks. When the Cowboys are allowed to play as the underdogs, they play with a chip on their collective shoulder, a chip that they seem to lose track of whenever the hype begins to rev up again.
If they’re going to eventually return to the NFC championship game after a near quarter-century’s absence, they’ll have to overcome this fatal flaw at some point; the hype machine around the Dallas Cowboys is simply too great for them to remain anything but the favorite should they make it that far.