New York, NY (CBS DFW)- Which version of the Dallas Cowboys will show up this Sunday?
That is the question that fans are beginning to ask themselves after the ‘Boys opened the season with three straight wins, in which they looked like world beaters, before following it up with back-to-back frustrating losses. Those first three wins came against the Giants, Redskins and Dolphins, teams that have combined for a 2-12 record. The two losses? Against the Saints and Packers who are a combined 8-2 on the year. So, where does that leave the Cowboys in the NFC? Are they potential Super Bowl contenders or a tier below the top teams in the NFC?
“First off, they faced three teams that are 2-12 and those are their wins. Then they play the Saints and the Packers, and they lose to them. I think you’re seeing where the Cowboys are right now, kind of in the middle of those teams,” said NFL On CBS lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. “Obviously, this week they are facing a team that is 0-4, so I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to tell from this game.”
As the pendulum of the Cowboys season continues to swing, the team gets ready to face the win-less New York Jets at Metlife Stadium. In theory, this should be a game in which the Cowboys of Weeks 1-3 show up again, as the Jets have struggled badly on the offensive side of the ball. But, it’s a big more difficult to say what the Jets will look like this Sunday, as they are finally beginning to get healthy.
“I don’t know what to expect to be honest,” said Wolfson. “But, I think that just having Sam Darnold back will kind of right the ship a little bit.”
Darnold, the Jets second-year starting QB, has been out since Week 2 after contracting mononucleosis. He has been cleared to return this week, meaning the team will no longer be relying on third-string QB Luke Falk. That is good news for a team that went 12 quarters without an offensive score before punching one in against the Eagles in the fourth quarter this past Sunday.
New York’s passing game is unpredictable, given that the stats to this point are skewed by the use of a third-stringer at QB and a patchwork offensive line. But the Cowboys have been about league average against the pass this season, ranking 17th in Football Outsiders’ passing defense DVOA. The one area of concern for the Cowboys this week could be in the running game on both sides of the ball.
Last week, Packers running back Aaron Jones exploded for four touchdowns on the ground as Green Bay totaled 120 rushing yards in the game. The Jets bring dynamic back Le’Veon Bell, who has been better than the numbers suggest. It will be interesting to see the Jets running game, which currently ranks 29th in the league according to Outsiders, when defenses actually have to worry about the passing game with Darnold. We got a brief glimpse of it in Week 1, when Bell ran 17 times for 60 yards against the Buffalo Bills, but we haven’t seen it since. How the Cowboys handle Bell will be an interesting watch after last week’s performance against the Packers and Jones.
On the flip side of the ball, the Jets have been solid stopping the run, ranking 11th in Outsiders rush defense DVOA. And the team just got rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams back last week and will likely see the return of outside linebacker Brandon Copeland. The Cowboys, of course, love to pound teams with Ezekiel Elliott and their mauling offensive line, but the line has been hampered by injuries and as Wolfson points out, not playing up to expectations.
“One of the strengths for Dallas over the years has been their offensive line and they are extremely banged up there,” said Wolfson. “They’re not playing to their potential in that phase of the game and it is certainly hurting the team and Dak Prescott.”
The running game was effective against the Packers, but after being down 17-0 at halftime, it proved difficult to incorporate as much as they would have liked. Prescott threw for over 400 yards, but he was sacked three times and threw three interceptions. The Jets secondary is by no means as good as Green Bay’s and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup should find space to roam. But, Wolfson thinks this game could prove to be a tighter affair than people think.
“I think this game is going to be closer than people think,” said Wolfson. “Dallas and the Jets both have something to prove.”
Oddsmakers have pegged Dallas as seven-point favorites entering Sunday despite being the road team. When asked what the difference will be, Wolfson pointed to turnovers and the play of the quarterbacks.
“When you talk to coaches, they all say that it comes down to taking care of the football, and I think that is what it comes down to here,” said Wolfson. “Both of these quarterbacks need to take care of the ball. We’ll see how Sam Darnold does in his first game back. The conditioning might not be there yet. It all comes down to the quarterback play and limiting these turnovers.”
Wolfson, along with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, will be on the call for CBS this Sunday when the Cowboys and Jets kick off at 3:25 p.m. Central Time.
(Update: A previous version of this article noted that the Jets would get tight end Chris Herndon back from his suspension. Herndon is eligible to return however, he his return is questionable after he sustained a hamstring injury.)