The Dallas Cowboys are hotter than any team in the NFL. They’re on a seven-game winning streak, they’re sitting at No. 1 in the NFC playoff picture, and they have two immediate superstars — rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott — leading the way.
In some ways, this Cowboys team is like a throwback to the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith years. They’re fun to watch, and they’re constantly on your TV (or however you want games and highlights these days). But does this team have what it takes to get Dallas back in the Super Bowl after a 21-year absence?
The Cowboys have not faced the most intimidating schedule so far this season, and already hold wins over the NFL’s two worst teams: the Browns and 49ers. In fact, no team has had an easier schedule through the first nine weeks:
Their biggest challenges have come from within the NFC East. They lost to the Giants in Week 1, and rallied to top the Eagles in overtime. In fact, the only team the Cowboys have beaten that currently has a winning record is 4-3-1 Washington.
The teams left on their schedule are all hovering around the .500 mark, so it’s possible Dallas waltzes into the playoffs without being really battle-tested.
Panic index: A Ben McAdoo-esque “stats are for losers.”
You know which other team only has one win over a team above .500? The Patriots. Sure, experience against tough competition comes in handy in the postseason, but that stat doesn’t really mean all that much, especially when you consider how much the Cowboys are beating teams by each week. Their 83-point differential is second-best in the league behind — you guessed it — the Patriots.
Is Todd Gurley the Ghost of Running Backs Future for Zeke?
Ezekiel Elliott is having a rookie year for the ages. He is currently the NFL’s leading rusher, and he is well on his way to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and appearing in the Pro Bowl this year.
Elliott is not the only recent rookie running back who had success in his rookie year, though. Just last season, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley ran for 1,106 yards to go along with 10 rushing touchdowns. He capped off his outstanding rookie season by going to the Pro Bowl and winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
However, Gurley is in the middle of a major sophomore slump. He has 451 rushing yards on 146 carries this season — that’s only 3.1 yards per carry. The offensive line cannot carve out rushing lanes for Gurley, but he also isn't showing the same burst, power, and strength that he did last year when running the ball.
Panic index: No bah humbugs here, Cowboys fans. Elliott is likely not destined for that same fate.
The Cowboys have a lot of weapons on offense like tight end Jason Witten, receiver Dez Bryant, and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, and they also have the best offensive line in the nation. The Rams have, uh, Case Keenum and Tavon Austin and one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. Just because Elliott burst onto the scene like Gurley as a rookie doesn’t mean he’s headed for a similar crash.
The Bad Steelers come out to play on the road
Pittsburgh is in bad standing right now. After a 4-1 start to the season, the Steelers are currently on the outside of the playoff picture and looking vulnerable, riding a three-game losing streak. But they’ve been particularly bad on the road, where they’re just 1-3 on the season.
Their first road loss came in a 34-3 beatdown delivered by the Philadelphia Eagles, and was followed by losses to the Dolphins and the Ravens. In the loss at Baltimore in Week 9, the Steelers looked particularly inept on offense and only had 69 yards through three quarters until two late touchdowns made the final 21-14 somewhat respectable.
The loss dropped them to 4-4 and gave the Ravens the upper hand in the AFC North for now. Next up, the Steelers play at Heinz Field, but they have to face one of the toughest teams in the league, the Cowboys. Then they hit the road again for back-to-back games against the Browns and Colts. If they can’t figure out how to get an away win against one of those teams, the Steelers could be in serious trouble.
Panic index: “It’s only halftime.”
“Guys that have been here know, no time, no reason to panic. Just watch me,” Ben Roethlisberger said this week.
The way the division is going — no team has a winning record in the AFC North right now — the Steelers have plenty of time to right the ship.
What if the Browns don’t get the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft?
We’re past the point of worrying about whether the Cleveland Browns can win a game. As we head into Week 10 of the NFL season and Cleveland remains winless, fans may be more worried about the fact that the Browns probably will win at least one game before it’s all said and done.
Since the merger in 1966, only three teams have managed to finish a season without any wins. Statistically, the Browns are likely to pull off an upset at some point despite a leaky defense, a revolving door of injured quarterbacks, and being the youngest team in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers are just barely better at 1-7, and if the Browns win one or — can you imagine — even two games, Cleveland may see that No. 1 draft position slip from its grasp.
Panic index: The Browns have to be first in something.
The 49ers are probably just as likely to sneak away with another win before the season ends. Realistically, the Browns will be picking first or second overall this season, and they have stockpiled enough draft picks for the next couple years that it’s not anything to be too upset about at this point.
The 49ers’ historically bad rush defense is only going to get worse
The 49ers’ defense, currently the worst in the NFL, set an ignominious record last week:
David Johnson? No shame there. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the league. Ezekiel Elliott? Leading rusher in the NFL. LeSean McCoy is a beast.
But ... Fozzy Whittaker? That wasn’t just a career high for him. It was a career high for him BY A LOT. His second-best game was a 45-yard outing. Christine Michael, who also put up a personal best against the 49ers, is coming off a game where he had five carries for 1 yard. Jacquizz Rodgers didn’t even have 154 rushing yards all of last season. And it only took Mark Ingram six carries to reach the 100-yard mark.
Next up, they have to face Johnson again, followed by two other of the NFL’s other top-10 rushers: LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. Oh yeah, and the 49ers’ defensive line lost both NaVorro Bowman and Arik Armstead for the season.
Panic index: Well, at least the 49ers are making history, right?