Cowboys, Cards join NFC elite

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One month into the NFL season, there’s no doubt Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is all the way back and as sharp as ever. The betting public is always attracted to high-scoring offenses, so the power of Dak’s attack is appealing.

Prescott has completed 75.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns for Dallas, which is scoring 31.5 points per game and leads the NFC East at 3-1. The lone blemish on the Cowboys’ record is a two-point loss at Tampa Bay on opening night, and there’s no shame in going down at the buzzer to Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champs on the road.

It’s also risky to go all in and ride with the Cowboys, who have not finished better than .500 since 2018 and tend to fall short of overhyped expectations, so professional bettors will be more reluctant to jump on board. I’m beginning to believe, which is difficult to admit because buying stock in Dallas is a dangerous game.

Still, a team that’s 4-0 against the spread will win friends and influence a lot of people. The Prescott-led offense is undeniably impressive, and a Dallas defense that was disastrous in 2020 is making a stronger showing.

“Dak looks terrific right now, and the defense is definitely improved,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Dallas is the real deal because the division is soft. We expected the Cowboys to win the division last year, and we expect them to win it this year if they stay healthy.”

Prescott’s health was the Cowboys’ primary concern in the preseason, when he sat out with a strained right throwing shoulder. That injury seems to be in the rearview mirror, and the same is true of the broken ankle he suffered during a home game against the Giants last October.

After Prescott’s injuries and a defense requiring repairs, the next big question facing Dallas was the ability of running back Ezekiel Elliott to bounce back from a pedestrian season. Elliott answered some critics Sunday by rushing 20 times for 143 yards and a touchdown in a 36-28 victory over the Panthers.

The strength of the Cowboys’ coaching staff is the creative play-calling ability of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, but coach Mike McCarthy’s game management is a weakness. McCarthy, often appearing asleep at the wheel, is one reason to doubt Dallas in the long run. If I rank the NFL coaches, McCarthy is closer to the bottom five than the top 15.

A year after Prescott’s ankle injury, the Giants are going back to Dallas. The Cowboys opened as 7.5-point favorites before sharp money moved the line to 7 in a show of support for the Giants, who rallied from a 21-10 deficit midway through the fourth quarter and stunned the Saints 27-21 in overtime.

Things can change as quickly as a lightning strike in the NFL. Always a better bet in the road dog role, the Giants and quarterback Daniel Jones are suddenly showing life after dropping two home games amid an 0-3 start. The Cowboys are odds-on favorites (-250 at DraftKings) to win the NFC East, a division that typically gets decided on the season’s final Sunday. Another Prescott injury could doom Dallas, so be careful about laying the price.

It’s a league with few certainties. Remember when the Rams were declared the top team in the NFC? That was only a week ago.

The Rams are now reeling from a thorough 37-20 beating at the hands of the Cardinals, who are perched atop the NFC West at 4-0 while scoring 35 points per game. Kyler Murray, Arizona’s diminutive 5-foot-10 quarterback, is suddenly The Next Big Thing. A nightmare for defenses, Murray is unique due to being so elusive and fast. He also has the arm strength to fire a 50-yard rope while on the run.

Murray rolled up 307 total yards (268 passing, 39 rushing) and two touchdowns to outshoot Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was the toast of Los Angeles and the league last week after outdueling Brady and the Buccaneers.

“Murray is your MVP favorite, but I don’t know if I’m buying that yet,” Avello said. “It’s only four weeks into the season, and we know things can change. I am buying the Cardinals as a playoff team. Arizona’s offense has been outstanding, and the defense is doing enough to help win football games.”

The NFC power rankings are shifting on a weekly basis. The Cardinals and Cowboys are in the discussion with the Buccaneers, Rams and Packers, who are back in the hunt with a rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers leading a three-game winning streak. But none of those five teams has an elite defense. The quarterbacks are driving everything.

The betting public’s affinity for high-powered offenses has been a fatal attraction too often with the Chiefs, who covered Sunday for the first time this season in a 42-30 win at Philadelphia. Kansas City is 2-12-1 ATS since the midpoint of the 2020 regular season.

Patrick Mahomes, who passed for five touchdowns against the Eagles, has made some reckless decisions while throwing four interceptions for a team that already has two losses.

“The Chiefs have to start playing better football, and it starts with Mahomes,” said VSiN analyst Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive. “Let’s recognize that Mahomes makes mistakes; let’s recognize that he doesn’t always wear a cape. He must play better.”

The Bills visit Kansas City this week in an AFC power struggle. The betting market is down on the Chiefs, who are 2.5-point favorites after the line opened -3. For those of us who doubt Josh Allen can match shots with Mahomes in a shootout, the price looks cheap on the home favorite.

Not much has changed since Mahomes lit up the Buffalo defense and the Chiefs rolled 38-24 in the AFC title game. The Bills’ victories over Miami, Washington and Houston are not exactly a big deal.

“Mahomes is human, and he’s going to make mistakes from time to time,” Avello said. “There’s always a reason for concern, because how long can you stay on top of your game? To be honest, the K.C. defense has never impressed me. It’s the Mahomes show. The offense still has all the pieces.”

 

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