Analysis

Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles emerging as contenders?

Around this time two years ago, I was standing at the locker of Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard when he said something that stuck with me for the rest of that season: "It's going to be OK, man. We're not hitting the panic button."

It was odd, to say the least, since Baltimore had seemingly no reason to panic. The Ravens were 4-1. They were winning. And yet, because of heightened expectations for a vaunted defense that was giving up too many yards, players were actually justifying their issues.

Less than four months later, Pollard was among those raising the Lombardi Trophy. He was part of a special squad that did special things, perhaps in part because winning games was never considered good enough.

I'm reminded of this situation as two teams cause their respective fan bases to ponder one wonderfully important question: Is this for real?

The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys are both 5-1 -- they are two of just three teams in the NFL currently at the five-win mark (along with the San Diego Chargers). Both of them are coming off statement games: The Eagles earned their first shutout victory in 280 contests (over the rival Giants on a national stage, to boot), while the Cowboys simply handed the Seahawks their second loss at home since 2012.

This is no doubt the first week most football fans have viewed either bold beginning as something other than a fluke, which brings me back to that scene two years ago, when the Ravens were left answering questions about their season's start.

Two weeks ago, when I was in Philadelphia in advance of the Eagles' game against the Rams, the questions were mostly negative. And while many might simply file that fact under the cliché "negative Philly" stereotype, the questions were also easily justified. Just as the Ravens' defense recognized a reason to wonder in 2012 (their total defense ranked 24th in the NFL after five weeks), the Eagles also seemed understanding.

LeSean McCoy was in a major slump, Nick Foles was throwing too many interceptions and the Eagles' defense was ranked 28th in total yards. Quite frankly, success did not seem sustainable. Yet, add Lane Johnson back into the mix at right tackle (which moved Todd Herremans back to guard), and McCoy is suddenly more comfortable.

The Eagles went 4-1 with McCoy in a slump. And we thought that slump was going to last the entirety of the season? Anyone who assumed as much should have been smarter. The aberration in the 26-year-old McCoy's career wasn't 1,607 yards in 2013. The aberration was 273 yards through five weeks in 2014.

And that, in a nutshell, is where this debate starts -- but certainly not where it ends. We are now left to watch with great intrigue to see whether two of the NFL's biggest markets might actually have true contenders on their hands. We're left to see whether the Cowboys and/or Eagles are a version of the 2012 Ravens -- or the 2013 Chiefs, who got out to a 9-0 start before losing six of their final eight games, including a crushing wild-card defeat.

For the Cowboys, perhaps the answer rests on the vitality of running back DeMarco Murray, just as the Eagles' sustainable success rests on the belief that McCoy's 149-yard performance Sunday was a true slump-buster. (Side note: Funny how valuable a running back suddenly seems again, isn't it?)

It is no coincidence that Dallas' hot start coincides with this little dose of history: Murray's six consecutive games with 100-plus rushing yards tied him with Jim Brown for the all-time record to start a season. Murray can break that record against the Giants this week -- a real possibility, since New York gave up 203 rushing yards last week against the Eagles. But for the Cowboys to truly turn this season into something special, Murray will need to do something he couldn't in his first three NFL campaigns: play in all 16 games.

I don't expect anyone to crown either team at this point; nobody gets a ring for winning the season's opening stanza. There are enough questions surrounding both the Eagles and Cowboys, even at 5-1, to keep everyone's anticipation somewhat subdued. But let's not dismiss this early success, either.

Billick: Proceed with caution, 'Boys

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DeMarco Murray has carried Dallas to a 5-1 start, but Brian Billick says the Cowboys must conserve their bell-cow back. READ

Instead, it is now time to do something we haven't done in years: Pay our respects to a pair of teams in the so-often-overrated NFC East. After all, the sign of a special squad isn't always just an ability to dominate with ease. It's finding a way to pile up wins, all while improving with a long-term goal in mind.

The Ravens weren't perfect after five weeks in 2012. Heck, you could argue they were far from perfect even after 17 weeks. But they found a way to overcome their deficiencies over the course of the season -- perhaps as much of a championship quality as winning itself.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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