Cowboys will still overcome inept defense with a better Dak Prescott, worse NFC East

The Cowboys are not only the best 1-3 team in the NFL a month into the 2020 season, they also are the luckiest.

Dallas’ defense was ripped apart again Sunday in a 49-38 home loss to Cleveland. After giving up 20 in a Week 1 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles, the Cowboys have yielded 126 points over their next three games.

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Given that they had a miracle winning comeback against the Falcons in Week 2, the Cowboys should be 0-4 and totally cooked when it comes to their NFC playoff chances under new coach Mike McCarthy. For how much they were disappointed with results under Jason Garrett, they never started 1-3 with their previous coach.

Jerrry Jones should be having conniptions about a defense that has further weakness in the secondary and limited strength at linebacker without Leighton Vander Esch. It cannot stop giving up chunk gains in both the running and passing games.

But nine days before he turns 78, the Cowboys’ owner and general manager should relax knowing he has Dak Prescott as his quarterback, even as the price of keeping Prescott long term keeps going up. Jones also should feel great that his team still plays in the NFL’s worst division, the NFC East.

Prescott has raised his game to an incredible level as a passer and runner in his second year of running Kellen Moore’s offense. He threw for a career-high 505 yards, along with four touchdown passes and three 2-point conversions, against the Browns. That performance followed the 450 yards and four combined TDs he dropped on the Falcons and the 472 yards and three TDs he dropped on the Seahawks.

Prescott went into the game rating 98.5 as a passer, averaging a league-high 396 yards per game at 8.3 yards per attempt. He exited Week 4 rating 102.6, averaging a league-higher 423 yards per game at 8.4 yards per attempt.

He is putting his team on his back, and the burden on him to make play after play is getting heavier with each passing week. Prescott would love to let running back Ezekiel Elliott go back to dominating in the rushing attack with a high volume of carries, but the current game scripts make that impossible. 

Prescott went 1 for 2 in passing duels with Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson. On Sunday, he thoroughly outplayed counterpart Baker Mayfield, but Mayfield didn’t need to worry much about the outcome, especially when his top wide receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., are throwing and rushing for TDs and facing little resistance to open or close the game.

The Cowboys’ defense looks worn down and lost under new coordinator Mike Nolan. Gone is their bending without breaking, replaced by cracking and crumbling. They are built mostly to rush the passer and play off Prescott and Elliott leading an explosive offense that can give the Cowboys leads, but that strength is useless when opponents are running at will and consistently exploiting the back seven for big plays.

Somehow, Dallas remains in a second-place tie with Washington (1-3) in the division with Philadelphia (1-2-1) only a half-game ahead by upsetting San Francisco on Sunday night. Somehow, none of those teams are in last place, thanks to Saquon Barkley-less New York opening 0-4.

Somehow, the Cowboys haven’t played one NFC East foe in their first four games. That means 50 percent of their remaining schedule, or six of the final 12 games, will be against the division. They do face the 3-1 Ravens and 3-0 Steelers outside the division, but the Eagles also haven’t played either of these teams and will do so in the next two weeks.

Beyond those AFC North tests, the Cowboys have only one more game remaining against a team with a current winning record, the 2-1 49ers. That will be played at Dallas in Week 15.

The Cowboys failed to take advantage of a weak division last season, fading to 8-8 and letting the Eagles clip them late at 9-7. NFC East teams combined for a .375 winning percentage in 2019. That’s likely to go down with the Eagles, Washington and the Giants all headed to seasonlong struggles.

Those three teams are better on defense in some spots but, like the Cowboys, still have major weaknesses. None of them are better at quarterback. Carson Wentz is in full regression while Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones are sophomore slumping. 

Prescott will remain an elite asset and the Cowboys just need to get into the NFC playoffs, even at 8-8, to have a chance. He proved he can hang with Wilson in a shootout and can do the same against Aaron Rodgers. It’s not as if the 4-0 Seahawks and 3-0 Packers are playing much defense, either. Tom Brady’s 3-1 Buccaneers and Drew Brees’ 2-2 Saints have underachieved on defense, too.

The Cowboys not only have Dak and the division on their side, but they also have plenty of time to dance into the postseason and have as good a shot at anyone in the NFC to get to Super Bowl 55. In this most unusual season, there should be nothing far-fetched about the Cowboys coming back to be the dangerous team they’re supposed to be, even if their awful defense doesn’t improve much.

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