Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said he thinks his team can contend for a Super Bowl title this season. I have written here many times that I disagree. Public proclamations aside, I think that the roster remains a work in progress and that the actions of the men who run the Cowboys over the last year-plus have been those of an organization more concerned about building for the long-term than about winning right now.
But this being the NFL, neither I nor Jones actually knows whether the Cowboys will play well enough over their final 10 games to make the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl. What I do know is that their next two games -- this week's home game against the Giants and next week's game against the currently undefeated Falcons in Atlanta -- offer a really good chance to prove that what Jones has said is true.
The Cowboys' next two opponents are as tough as they come -- the defending Super Bowl champs, who are still mad about the way the Cowboys beat them at their place in early September, and then the team that's played better than any other in the league so far this season. They are the top two teams in this week's ESPN Power Rankings, and if the Cowboys can play well against and/or beat either one of them, then Jones' claims of 2012 contention might start to hold a little more water.
After the Atlanta game, the Cowboys will have half of their season remaining, but not one of their final eight games is against an opponent that currently has a winning record. This works two ways. Yes, those games might be easier than these next two for them to win. But none offers as good a chance as the ones they have this Sunday and next Sunday to find out just how tough they are against the kinds of teams they could expect to see if they did make the playoffs.
Dallas looked every bit the championship contender in that Sept. 5 opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. The defense looked vastly improved with the additions of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. The offense was clicking; quarterback Tony Romo artfully dodged the Giants' pass rush and DeMarco Murray kept them honest in the run game. Had Jones been crowing about Super Bowl dreams that night, he'd have been much easier to believe.
But since then, things have been leaky. Murray is hurt now, as is defensive leader and star linebacker Sean Lee. Romo has had a tough time connecting with his star wide receivers since he and Kevin Ogletree lit it up in the opener. Carr and Claiborne haven't played as well the last three games as they did in the first three. The Cowboys let a game get away two weeks ago in Baltimore and had to fight every inch to take out a lousy Carolina Panthers team Sunday. Since Sept. 5, there has been precious little evidence that this Dallas team is one that could, even if it improved enough over the final half of the season and took advantage of that soft-looking schedule, make any kind of noise in the postseason.
Here, then, is their chance to present more. If the offensive line really is playing better, and if there are good, consistent, productive things to come from Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, the next two weeks are the time to prove it. If they can run the ball -- at all -- without Murray, the next two weeks are their chance to show it. If they're capable of being tough and physical enough to stare down the top teams in their conference, the next two weeks might be the last chance they get all year to demonstrate that -- to themselves, never mind anyone else.
After Atlanta, the schedule is full of "yeah, but" teams. As in: Yeah, you beat the Eagles, but anybody can make Michael Vick turn the ball over; Yeah, you beat the Redskins, but they have no secondary; Yeah, you beat the Browns, but come on. There's no "yeah, but" when you beat the Giants or the Falcons in 2012. Unless you're the Cowboys at this very moment, about whom folks can say, "Yeah, they beat the Giants in Week 1, but what have they shown you since?"
The chance sits directly in front of Jones' team to erase a lot of the "yeah, but." Sweeping the Giants would make people take notice. Knocking off Atlanta, whether or not the Eagles do it first this week, would make people start to wonder whether Jones might have a point about this team's potential. Losing to both wouldn't be embarrassing or mean the end of the Cowboys' season, but it would allow a few more layers of dust to settle on the memory of Week 1. It would leave them wide open to continued presumptions that they're just another middle-of-the-pack team this year. "Yeah, they could win nine games and sneak into the playoffs, but it's not as though they can beat any of the teams they're going to face when they get there."
Personally, I don't think they have enough. Even with Murray and Lee healthy, I didn't think this was a team capable of hanging with the NFC elites come January. But you all know I've been wrong before. And if the Cowboys can beat the Giants this week, the Falcons next week, or both, they could give me and a lot of other folks reason to think we might have been wrong about them.