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The Dallas Cowboys Can’t Keep Up in Mediocre NFC East

We have somehow angered the Schedule Gods. Last week, we were blessed with the New Orleans Saints’ win over the Los Angeles Rams, as fun a matchup as any this season, and a meeting between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, two of the best quarterbacks of their generation. This Sunday, there is one game between two teams above .500—and that game involves the Cincinnati Bengals. The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, with three combined wins, are playing on Monday Night Football. Here’s the good news: There are so many story lines emerging that this week can be entertaining and we can learn things. With that in mind, here are the matchups to watch in Week 10:

Can the Eagles rise above the Cowboys and a mediocre NFC East?

The NFC East is bad, which impacts fans everywhere because its teams are featured in so many prime-time games. The Eagles-Cowboys matchup on Sunday Night Football is no exception. Dallas is coming off one of the most uninspiring prime-time performances of the season that didn’t feature Jon Gruden. The Cowboys traded a first-round pick to acquire Amari Cooper at the trade deadline, a move that was supposed to help save their offense and make Dak Prescott a top quarterback again. This did not happen. Their loss to the Tennessee Titans on MNF was so bad it prompted a 7-year-old to write a letter to owner Jerry Jones complaining about the team. To make matters worse, former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant signed with the Saints this week. He’ll play with Drew Brees, one of the few quarterbacks who can make anyone look productive, even the unexplosive version of Bryant that presently exists. One or two big Dez games will make the Cowboys’ problems look worse.

The good news is that the NFC East is so mediocre that the top three teams all have a chance to win it. The Washington Redskins, on paper, probably have the least talent on their roster. Yet Aaron Schatz says that they’re the clear favorite in the division, according to Football Outsiders’ projections, because of their one-game lead and the fact that “Washington’s remaining strength of schedule ranks fourth-easiest, and Philadelphia’s ranks 11th-toughest. So Washington wins the division 58 percent of the time, Philadelphia 31 percent and Dallas 11 percent.”

Here’s pretty much all you need to know:

This game has huge implications for Dallas’s future. If the Cowboys are embarrassed in prime time and fall to 3-6, then questions about their infrastructure—already very loud—will be piercing.

Jones said this week that Prescott will get an extension. They’ll have to sign defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to a long-term contract as well. They have no first-round pick in next year’s draft and although they are scheduled to have $54 million in cap space next year, there are plenty of teams in a much better position who will also have considerable room. The Seahawks will have almost $10 million more and are a better team right now. By the way, I’ve seen no evidence that the Cowboys are particularly good at free agency even if they choose to build that way. Cap space is becoming wildly overrated in a league where the cap rises $10 million every year.

Dallas has a lot of talent—Ezekiel Elliott, Byron Jones, and Leighton Vander Esch are among those who have been hugely impressive this season—but the Cowboys aren’t close to winning a Super Bowl and the looming Prescott extension will not help matters. A massive part of Prescott’s value is that he makes less than $1 million against the cap this season. If you can’t build a team with that flexibility, good luck doing so when that number increases to $15 million.

I am intrigued to see if the Eagles can get back on track and save their season, and if Golden Tate, whom they acquired for a third-round pick at the deadline, outperforms Cooper. I would also like to see if Dallas has a plan.

Can the Bills stop being a punch line, if for only one week?

Tim Graham of The Athletic wrote a great piece this week detailing why Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman shouldn’t be a constant object of ridicule, since that takes the spotlight off the franchise that created the problem. “Peterman is a late-round draft choice who acquitted himself in the preseason, earned the opening-day job, and was thrust into a thankless scenario after being jilted by the NFL people who believed in him the most,” Graham wrote.

This week the Bills, who are third in the NFL in yards allowed per game, play the New York Jets, another punch line of a franchise, in a game that they have a chance to win. Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold will not play; Buffalo’s Derek Anderson will play if rookie quarterback Josh Allen cannot. It’s come to this for the Bills: throwing to Kelvin Benjamin is less efficient than spiking the football. Betting sites are setting odds for a hypothetical Alabama-Buffalo game. It’s not good.

I would like to address that last item: It’s an inane conversation. For as hopeless as he looks at the NFL level, Peterman put up 43 points on Clemson in 2016, the season in which the Tigers beat Alabama in the national championship game. Suggesting the Crimson Tide of 2018 are anywhere near the level of the Bills ignores the talent of players like LeSean McCoy, who would run wild on a college defense. Stop. Pete Carroll had to field this question six years ago when a Crimson Tide team, led by AJ McCarron and Eddie Lacy, looked so good that college pundits (like Steve Spurrier) floated the idea that they could compete. Carroll pointed out that he fielded similar questions about whether his USC teams could compete against an NFL team—those USC questions looked laughable then and were made more so when you consider that stars like Matt Leinart didn’t pan out in the NFL. USC would’ve been pasted then, Alabama would get pasted now.

It’s looking like Drew Brees vs. Patrick Mahomes II for MVP.

Patrick Mahomes is now such a heavy favorite to win the MVP that he’s into minus-money for the first time. I find that intriguing considering Drew Brees, who is the second favorite, just toppled the only undefeated team remaining last week. Consider this outrageous stat:

Even in today’s NFL, it is remarkable to have that high a completion percentage downfield. I’m not suggesting that Mahomes shouldn’t be the MVP front-runner, but this will be a far closer race down the stretch than we think. Mahomes plays in prime time against the Rams next week, but there are still two months left. MVP is an award driven by narratives, and Brees has never won. The Saints have night games against the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, and Carolina Panthers remaining and a late afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving Brees ample opportunity to make his case to win. Look at this:

There’s no science to this award. Both Mahomes and Brees play for likely division winners that will receive a playoff bye. They’re both efficient, exciting to watch, and have tremendous supporting casts and brilliant offensive coaches. Look at what Mahomes has done to this offense:

The reason I bring this up now is that they both have uninspiring matchups this week—Mahomes against the Arizona Cardinals and Brees against the Bengals. They’ll have to maintain their statistical pace before the real debate begins in the last month of the season.

Brees is setting records, including the all-time passing yardage mark. Mahomes has thrown for more than 300 yards for eight straight games, approaching the record of nine held by … Brees.

The Rams proved they’re mortal. Can they return to dominance?

Despite last week’s loss to the Saints, the Rams can still earn home-field advantage, but the schedule is tricky. They play the Chiefs next week and have pretty good teams in the Chicago Bears and Eagles among their next five opponents. The Rams are the model of consistency on offense, using the same personnel more often than anyone else:

And beyond that, are using far fewer players to do it:

It’s remarkable, like an NBA team playing a six-man rotation. This week, they play Seattle. In the first meeting between these teams, the Seahawks scored 31 points, the second-highest total the Rams have allowed this season, and rushed for 190 yards, the most Los Angeles has allowed. (On a per game basis, the Rams and Seahawks are two of the top three teams in rushing yards per game.) Here’s something else to note from their first meeting:



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