The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 9: Cowboys surging with all eyes on them

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 9 to Week 10.

The Cowboys' star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown Sunday, just two days after a legal victory in a federal appeals court allowed him to play. The team's owner, Jerry Jones, has been at the center of the debate regarding player protests during the national anthem, with a position that has evolved throughout the season. The team's ex-quarterback, now a broadcasting sensation, returned home Sunday to great fanfare and inspired some not-so-friendly fire from another former Cowboys legend turned entertainer.

We keep watching. In a year full of politicized analysis of television ratings, the Cowboys deliver. CBS had its highest ratings of the year for Chiefs-Cowboys, a fact only notable for its entire lack of surprise. Like it or not, this is America's Team more than ever.

It could be a special team, too. Beneath the intersection of sports, sponsors, suspensions and civil rights that has overwhelmed this season lies a Cowboys squad quietly coming together. The vaunted offensive line has started to exert its will over the last five games, gaining more rushing yards (183 per game) with a higher average (5.24 per carry) and more rushing touchdowns than any team in football over that stretch, all while averaging over 32 points per game. On Sunday, the Cowboys leaned on the lightweight Chiefs defense until it buckled. Dallas took the game over with two straight touchdown marches to open the second half that combined for 25 plays, taking more than 12 minutes off the game clock. They were just the sort of drives that Tony Romo piloted back in 2014.

Rayne Dakota Prescott is playing smart, efficient football with the usual lack of hype that follows successful second acts. And he's getting more help from a defense that looks entirely different with linebacker Sean Lee back on the field and defensive end David Irving having returned from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. After an offseason where analysts (ahem) worried about the team's pass rush, Demarcus Lawrence, who had his own suspension last season, is in the mix for the Defensive Player of the Year award. The goal in Dallas since this offensive line came together has been for the defense to at least be average and opportunistic, a group that can play complementary football. Any unit that can hold the Chiefs to 17 points deserves respect.

The team's convincing three-game winning streak sets up a fascinating second half of the season, with the Cowboys trying to chase down the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. The top of the NFC is full of intrigue (more on that below), but no games are more appetizing than the two Cowboys-Eagles clashes coming up, including the season finale.

The Eagles don't play again until Nov. 19 for their trip to Dallas on "Sunday Night Football," in what could be the first Game That Truly Matters of the season. Elliott's availability for that night remains in doubt, a status that has become routine. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday regarding the preliminary injunction in his case. There could finally be clarity for Elliott after the three-judge panel hears the case, according to NFL Network legal analyst Gabe Feldman, with the result being that Elliott either serves his six-game suspension or is potentially cleared to play the rest of the year. Then again, this is a case once thought to be all but closed before Week 1.

And so we wait, with the Cowboys stuck at the center of this divisive campaign with a young team that doesn't figure to give up its spotlight. A season defined in large part by the star players it has lost would get a boost from such a high-profile game where the attention wasn't so focused on who was missing.

The Cowboys' resurgence is one part of a compelling NFC playoff picture beginning to take focus ...

New blood rising in the NFC

In this muddled season, where there have been complaints about the lack of teams truly emerging from the pack, the NFC is starting to look rather stratified and wholly different from a year ago. The Eagles (7-9 in 2016), Saints (7-9 in 2016) and Rams (4-12 in 2016) have played so well and so consistently that anything short of a playoff appearance would be a big disappointment.

In an NFC decade largely dominated by the Seahawks' and Packers' consistency, this NFL season is starting to remind me of the 2015 campaign, which finished with a Panthers victory over the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game. They were dominant new teams at the top of the sport, and all of the above-named teams run highly schemed offenses that have led to big plays and wide open receivers.

"They run this college offense," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris told NFL Network's James Palmer Sunday about the Eagles. "They kind of run what the Chiefs do. They got an option to run, option to pass. They run the read option, the real option. It's a college offense, and [Carson Wentz] is executing it very good."

The key is up front for all these teams. Wentz is being protected well, even against a strong pass rush like the Broncos'. The line is also strong enough to run when defenses know it's coming, like when they were playing with a big lead on Sunday.

Jared Goff and Drew Brees have enjoyed similarly improved protection and excellent running games behind them. While the Saints and Rams run more conventional attacks than the Eagles, the well-rounded nature of all three teams stand out. They can beat you with the pass, the run or on defense.

The NFC looks more intriguing and compelling down the stretch than the AFC because this trio is so new, transformed and largely unexpected. They also have some of the best teams from the past few seasons chasing them, with Seattle, Dallas and Carolina all in the mix. Minnesota has perhaps the best defense in the conference and holds the best story possible in its back pocket, with Teddy Bridgewater a possibility to return to the starting lineup for a first-place team after suffering a devestating knee injury in August 2016.

The conference upheaval has been fun, but the growing signs that these teams are here to stay is just what this season needed.

Speaking of surprises ...

Week 9 stories that would have been hard to fathom in August

1) The Falcons' offensive struggles. On Sunday, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan got the ball back with 2:18 left, down by three points in Carolina with a chance to alter the trajectory of a Falcons season gone amiss. After another fast start by the team and another blown lead, this time a 10-point advantage lost in the second quarter, Ryan was in position to break hearts on the road in the Falcons' first NFC South game.

They went four and out. A predictable swing pass on first down was followed by two plays with pressure up the middle on Ryan. Atlanta's offensive line caved in repeatedly from the inside, as it has for much of the season, with Carolina's Kawann Short doing the dirty work Sunday.

On fourth down, Atlanta wanted a pass interference call that didn't come. Bad execution followed by bad luck is typical of a Falcons season that remains mediocre despite a roster that should be ready to win now.

2) The Panthers are putting everything on Cam Newton. Newton led the Panthers in rushing for the fourth straight game, with the team apparently abandoning any offseason concept of trying to keep him healthy and avoiding hits in this post-shoulder surgery phase of his career. With so little else working on offense, Carolina coach Ron Rivera seems to be taking a YOLO approach rather than worrying about long-term ramifications.

3) Jacksonville's utter dominance. The closest of Jacksonville's five victories this season came Sunday over Cincinnati -- by 16 points. The latest convincing win shouldn't have even been that close, with the Jaguars gaining 26 first downs against only eight for the Bengals. The Jaguars have cruised in back-to-back games without No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, with Blake Bortles' season going from "Hmm ... not so bad" to "What's happening here?"

In a pass-first league, the best pass defense will always have a chance. No team is tougher to throw against than Jacksonville, and the addition of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from Buffalo should make them tougher to run against, too.

4) The Giants' defensive disappearing act. As bad as the Giants' offense has been this season, the team's defense is far more disappointing. Allowing the Rams to score 48 points in the first 42 minutes Sunday was the nadir for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's group, which has been less than the sum of its parts since Week 1 in Dallas. Safety Landon Collins, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate last season who has played fine this season overall, had one of his toughest days as a pro against Los Angeles.

5) Starting Savage spells doom for Texans. It's easy to pick on Texans quarterback Tom Savage after he started Sunday's game against the struggling Colts defense completing 9 of 27 passes. The crazier part here is that Texans coach Bill O'Brien, after watching Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson up close all offseason, chose to make Savage the Week 1 starter. Watson was a genuine shooting star in his time at quarterback before tearing his ACL in practice last Thursday, while the Texans' season is all but over now that Savage is behind center.

6) The Packers offense is tough to watch. Give Matthew Stafford credit for dealing in a second straight excellent prime-time during Detroit's 30-17 victory. The Lions are very much in the playoff hunt at 4-4, considering the team's schedule ahead.

With that said, the Lions caught a schedule break. They got the Brett Hundley Packers rather than the Aaron Rodgers Packers, and the fighting Hundleys looked as limited following the team's bye week as they did before it. This Green Bay squad appears headed for third place or worse in the NFC North, and hopefully the folks in the NFL's league office can see that.

On November 26th, the Packers are scheduled to visit Pittsburgh on "Sunday Night Football." On that same day, there is an incredible Rams-Saints matchup in Los Angeles that highlights all that is holy about 2017 football. Don't tell me about ratings. The sport will grow with the best games and the best teams being seen by the most fans. Contact your local elected official or perhaps the NFL's Twitter account with #FlexNOLA to support the change.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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