The schedule brings a number of unexpected twists and turns that test a team from numerous angles. This sample size exposes weaknesses and requires a young team that believes it is good to prove it over and over -- to answer questions one week that were not asked before. Or, to confirm those answers as repeatable and sustainable.
If there is one description of the 2016 Cowboys that continues to flatter the two rookies at the helm, it seems that "repeatable and sustainable" is about the brightest compliment one could pay.
For that means there is no fluke to be found. There is no luck. There was no great fortune in finding yourself on the winning side nine times in a row. This certainly doesn't promise future success, but all indicators insist that success seems likely.
We may have to face it: The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are winning in ways that suggest they have put something together that may be good for a while. Because the way they win week after week does not suggest they are just riding a wave of fortune.
Yesterday, in a game when they appeared to wake up as the second quarter was being played (those noon starts are pretty early, you know), they took the ball away from their opponent and repeated the normal recipe for a Cowboys win.
This did not occur until the Cowboys' offense touched the ball for a fifth time. The first four drives were filled with a number of rather disappointing outcomes, each leading to a Cowboys punt. With a simmering quarterback situation that might have been inside the head of Dak Prescott -- but was definitely in the minds of all in attendance -- the quarterback's play was beyond spotty for those first several throws. He looked like a guy who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and as is the case in this league, the Ravens were adding even more weight by repeatedly falling on him blitz after blitz.
The stadium grew antsy as the Ravens drove the ball down the field with repeated runs at the heart of the Cowboys' defense behind their celebrated guard Marshal Yanda, and with frustration growing on offense and vulnerability appearing on defense, the Cowboys had to play with a deficit on Sunday.
And, I guess, being down 7-0 with five minutes to go in the second quarter is what passes for a challenge to this juggernaut these days.
The Cowboys took the ball on their fifth drive with 9:31 to go in the half and with great field position at their own 48-yard line. Promptly, as if they felt the Ravens were being too generous, the offensive line quickly took two penalties. Travis Frederick made it first-and-20, and then Tyron Smith walked it back 10 more after a hold for first-and-30.
First-and-30 holes nearly are impossible to climb out of. The probability charts suggest you may consider just putting your punt team on the field and saving everyone some time.
But, in a way that would make Han Solo proud, the Cowboys weren't interested in odds. This is where their day started to turn.
First-and-30: Prescott scrambled for 12 when nobody was open.
Second-and-18: Prescott finds Dez Bryant on a skinny post for 12 more.
Third-and-6: The Ravens surely know that Prescott is looking for those sticks now, so he works a "go" route to Brice Butler over the top for the Cowboys' biggest play of the day -- 41 yards down to the Ravens' 7-yard line.
A few plays later, Prescott again rolls out -- this time to his right -- and fires a dart to Cole Beasley at the pylon before C.J. Mosley tests his collarbone in the Ravens' bench area. Touchdown, Cowboys, and after a brief examination, everyone offers a sigh of relief for the health of the rookie quarterback.
So much of this season has been about arguing the role of the quarterback and the credit of this offense, most of which has been distributed to Ezekiel Elliott and a terrific offensive line. This isn't about removing that credit, but this is to say that most of the vital moments in a game do not come down to your ability to run the ball. It relies on your passing game and getting the weapons on your offense in space, where they can do damage. Third-and-longs. Two-minute drills. Or, in this case, first-and-30. And you can sugarcoat it all you want, but Prescott has either looked flawless in some games or has recovered from slow starts in time to bring the team back on several occasions.
And that is why the credit must be given to the rookie quarterback's ability to pass yet another test Sunday. Baltimore tried to hit him hard. The hits were hard enough that you wondered how others might have withstood the same punishment.
By the time the day was over, the running game came along and did its job of dominating the clock and erasing any last chances the Ravens might have had. The offense scored on every single drive the rest of the day following that first-and-30 conversion. It went: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. Record: 9-1.
No short fields were offered again. The five drives totaled 359 yards and 25 minutes for 27 points. All in the final 39 minutes of the game. And you said momentum cannot be measured.
If there is one attribute we have seen from this offense, it seems to be that once the train gets rolling down the tracks, nobody slows it down. They may start poorly, but when they start feeling good about their offense, it continues until the stadium empties. How many weeks in a row do we talk about how they pound teams into a fine powder during the second halves of games?
But, let's get back to the "repeatable and sustainable" conversation. So much of this conversation about the team is wondering what its ceiling can be. Can this team actually win in the playoffs like this? Can it contend for a Super Bowl like this?
The simple answer is that there is only one way to find out.
The more nuanced answer starts with looking at how this team scores. Yes, there are some big plays that stick in our memory -- for instance, the great moments in Pittsburgh last week are front and center. But, the reason you must like the Cowboys' chances moving forward against any opponent is there is no reliance on the fireworks show from week to week.
It helps to get yards in chunks, but on Sunday, the Ravens had more explosive plays than the Cowboys, 4-2. They had more big plays of 20 yards or more, and I don't take that as a negative. I think it is great news that the Cowboys kill you with six or eight-yard chunks and that they do it in a way where the design and execution of the offense suggest someone is always open. The quarterback is not asked to pierce the eye of a needle with a throw. He has too many weapons and too much misdirection. The running back is not asked to break three tackles, for he has enough possibilities over the course of an afternoon to choose his favorite holes and take what he can. Some days there will be a chance to leave the defense in his dust, but others, like yesterday, Elliott will have just one run into the secondary for 14 yards. Everything else comes in battering-ram fashion.
The point is that if you are relying on 50-yard plays, you may not get those every week. But, if you are comfortable taking six yards per snap and running 5-8 minutes off the clock each time you step on to the field, then I think you have the basis for long-term success. Mix in a few big plays, for sure, but that must be your frosting. The cake is the way this team drives the ball and protects its defense.
That offense travels. That offense doesn't need perfect weather. Heck, that offense can survive an injury or two along the way. If you have 11 parts that are reasonably equal on an offense, and do not rely on a superstar doing special things, you have a force to be reckoned with.
And the Cowboys definitely have that.
Good teams have followed this recipe for years. The Seahawks do not rely on a series of huge plays and magic tricks to beat you. New England is different, but similar. These powers have been built on moving the chains and repeating the process until you succumb. Other teams do rely on one player carrying them with a tight-rope walk, but the repeatability is more difficult to achieve.
I think you should strongly prefer this -- the dominant effort that looks simple. Another 400-yard day with five consecutive scoring drives and very few SportsCenter-worthy highlight clips. This is death by 1,000 paper cuts. This is repeatable. Week after week, opponent after opponent.
Some weeks there will be drama, and some weeks you simply will get the ball with 8:16 to go and practically not let Baltimore touch the ball again. Your ground-and-pound has taken another victim.
Baltimore was a very good opponent that tried to make this a physical slugfest. The great news is that while it got the Cowboys' attention, they were able to push back and take over once they zeroed in.
It all looks so simple. And yet, if you have been following the Cowboys for a few decades, you know it is not. This is rare dominance, and when the sun shines down on you, you must soak it in and enjoy it.