It feels like a weekly routine now, to gather here Monday morning and marvel at what we saw the day before from a Cowboys team from which most had no idea what to expect this season.
Could they win their division? Maybe. This is a very poor division, after all. But somehow they would have to keep the boat afloat until their hero could save them from a burning building in late October. We don't know many things in this unpredictable football world, but we sure know that this team cannot go on without the guy they have built around for a decade.
And then, without fanfare or notice, this guy arrived. And the whole thing hasn't been the same ever since.
So when the final minutes had elapsed Sunday evening from a thorough and decisive beatdown in a place where this team hardly ever wins and against an opponent that needs no introduction, it began to occur to many that it is time to realize what we may be looking at. Not the future, but the present.
As in, in the present tense, this is a very good football team. With a chance to be even better in an NFC that has some vacancies at the top that need filling.
The Cowboys were excellent yesterday in Green Bay in so many regards that it may take a few days to properly recognize all of those who did well. They took the opening kickoff and marched the ball right down the field in a way that declared their intentions right from the top. They were not going to be fun to deal with offensively all day long.
Now, to fully appreciate why that may be particularly noteworthy, we should keep in mind that one of the final stops on the Cowboys' schedule in 2015 was also Lambeau Field. On that day, the Cowboys had the dubious distinction of possessing the ball 12 different times and driving it to their own 40-yard line just twice. Now, things change in the NFL at a rapid pace, but that was December of 2015, when the Cowboys were the laughingstock of the league. Since then, they have transformed into a team that evidently can dismantle even the opponents who are pretty sure they can stand up to the Cowboys' power-packed attack.
You see, the Packers had all sorts of fancy defensive statistics in the first four games of their season that had given the impression they would be able to slow down Ezekiel Elliott and this ridiculously good offensive line. Then, they also had a pressure package that would certainly have a rookie quarterback -- making just his third road start -- confused and uncertain with guys in his face.
Wrong, and wrong.
We have grown accustomed in the past few years to expect the unexpected -- good and bad -- when it comes to Dallas Cowboys football. When it appears things are bad, they become quite phenomenal. When you think they are ready to win it all, something bad happens.
But 2016 has been a thoroughly unlikely start, with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant either absent or only barely present. And yet, this group has devoured five straight opponents by stacking one impressive performance on top of the next.
The best part of the win in Green Bay was late in the first half. The Cowboys had actually met some level of offensive resistance after that first impressive drive. On the next four occasions when the Cowboys had the football, they resulted in a punt, fumble, field goal and a punt. The defense kept that from becoming stressful, but for the first 29 minutes of the first half, the Cowboys had five possessions and scored only twice, with just the one touchdown. Unlike Cincinnati, this was a bit of a struggle at certain points early on.
The possession started at the Dallas 2-yard line. It seemed pretty clear the Cowboys just wanted a little breathing room in case they had to punt. It seemed pretty clear that Green Bay wanted to force that, as they called a timeout after each of Zeke's two runs that set up a third-and-1 from the Dallas 11. Had Green Bay been OK with going to the locker room down 10-6, it sure appeared the Cowboys would have been happy to oblige them.
Green Bay wanted the ball back. They weren't expecting to get it back after a kickoff, though.
Third-and-1 at their own 11. A punt is not a matter of life or death here. Thirteen personnel with Lucky Whitehead coming in motion right across the formation as the Packers expect Zeke again. It is important to note that Whitehead was running at Julius Peppers, a fantastic edge player since his draft back in 2002. But, if there is something that always gets Peppers, it is being left unblocked with misdirection. He always "eats the cheese" in a way that DeMarcus Ware would. Those fakes get those legends to freeze at the moment of truth, and just like the Cowboys scouted, it worked like a charm. Peppers sees Zeke, takes one false step to crash down and Whitehead is out of the gate for a massive gain of 26 yards down the sideline. And at that moment, the game changed.
Now, there is 40 seconds to play in the first half and the Cowboys are out of the shadow of their own goal posts. Still only at the 38-yard line, you can bet that on another day, the conservative Jason Garrett might have offered a few runs and went to the room. Not on this day. They decided to keep throwing punches. First down on the very next play, the Cowboys isolate another questionable defender -- this time it is LaDarius Gunter, a corner who is only playing because the Packers are down to their fourth and fifth corners for this game. Gunter is sitting at the sticks for Terrance Williams on a double move. The corner then slips and cannot recover, leaving Dak Prescott's throw over the top as easy as any practice field rep. Williams grabs another quick 42 yards in a matter of nine seconds. This is likely the longest throw of the season for the rookie, and as he demonstrated at Mississippi State, that deep throw is no big deal for him, even though the Cowboys have barely unveiled that feature.
One play later, Prescott smells blood and goes right back at Gunter with Brice Butler on a very similar fade for a beautiful fingertip catch in the back corner of the end zone, completing an amazing 98-yard drive that took 33 seconds and put the game at 17-6 going into halftime.
The game wasn't over, but it was going to be way uphill for a struggling Packers offense the rest of the way.
Prescott continued to pass every test. His work against the blitzes was so thorough and impressive in the first half that the Packers almost stopped trying it by halftime. He knew where to go each time, and aside from the play where Peppers was able to knock the ball loose after going around Doug Free, Prescott looked like a veteran against the blitz.
And then in the second half, Elliott provided the exact performance that his investment promised. He was brought in here to convert halftime leads into wins behind that unreal offensive line, and in the second half, it was pretty special. He had 12 carries for 60 yards in the first half, so I don't mean to underestimate that part of his contribution. But, the 16 carries for 97 yards in the second half is when the plays start to go downhill and life is taken out of the stadium completely. The team ran for 191 yards, which is 14 more than the Packers had allowed all season to that point.
It is pretty clear who won the battle of No. 1 rushing offense versus No. 1 rushing defense. One side will likely still be ranked at the top all season. The other will likely be league-average soon enough.
It would be foolish to not properly recognize the other side of this performance, as well. The Cowboys' defense was the next in the line to assist the Packers in driving that once-pristine offense off the side of a cliff, but give the Cowboys plenty of credit for stripping that football loose and taking it away four times on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers has started 67 games at Lambeau Field -- his offense had been guilty of four giveaways on one day just one other time. (And they won that game.) This one was simply impossible to win as the team stripped Jordy Nelson with a big hit from Barry Church, then Church stepped in front of a route to Randall Cobb on a play where Rodgers said he never saw Church. After that, a strip of Rodgers at the 1-yard line and another strip of Ty Montgomery late showed that David Irving has a knack for going after the ball. Rodgers left several plays on the field, but the Cowboys walked the tightrope well enough. And when you go get the ball for your offense that many times, you erase a lot of other mistakes.
Now the Cowboys can rest for a bit and get some players healthy. They are now the talk of the league and while we can debate where they rank among the best teams -- and we can certainly debate whether the Cowboys are smart enough not to block a moving train -- there is no debating what we witnessed the past two weekends.
The Cowboys have played two teams who have perfect attendance in the playoffs the past five seasons (10 for 10) in the Bengals and Packers. Not sure either is a Super Bowl contender, but they are definitely teams that play in January every year. The Cowboys dismantled both without Romo or Bryant or Scandrick, and it wasn't particularly close in either case.
These wins should do all sorts of good for the confidence level in their locker room, and the feeling of promise of what lies ahead. They are absolutely firing on all cylinders.
This all snuck up on us in August again. But, by October, it is undeniable: