Are the Cowboys for real?

The Cowboys will get a big test against the Buccaneers in Week 8's best matchup.

Updated: October 24, 2003, 4:47 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 8.

Bill Parcells
AP PhotoThe Cowboys are the fourth team Bill Parcells has coached.
First ... Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: People, listen to Bill Parcells. He's tipping off everyone that the Cowboys are heading into a tough stretch unless they improve their play on the field.

Their remarkable 5-1 start is a credit to his coaching and how players have bought into his system. Thanks to Parcells, the Cowboys are a three-hour nightmare to play on Sunday. They don't make too many mistakes. Their defense hustles to the ball. They are getting big plays on offense.

But eight weeks from now, if the Cowboys are closer to the .500 mark than four games over it, don't be surprised. Remember how Parcells keeps pointing out what isn't working. He, like everyone in the league, knows the Cowboys went 5-1 against teams with 10-27 records.

The only losing teams the Cowboys face during the next nine weeks are division rivals Washington and the New York Giants. Everyone knows those are tough battles. Now, that the easy part of the schedule is done, the Cowboys enter the next phase of their season starting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday.

Parcells knows the Cowboys' problems. He mentioned Monday that running backs were stopped behind the line of scrimmage 10 times last Sunday. That stinks, he said. He talked about a punt return average below 6 yards. That stinks. He mentioned some problems on special teams that worry him.

The Cowboys were good in the first six games but they were also lucky. They were lucky to hit teams at the right time. Two of their wins came against teams with only one victory. They lost their opener to the Falcons, who have lost six straight since then.

The Bucs game is a wake up call, and a tough one at that. The Bucs have been on the other end of the schedule. Carolina was tougher than anyone forecast. The Colts are among the elite teams and pulled out a victory coming back from 21 with four minutes left. The 49ers pounded the Bucs with the run.

To the Cowboys' credit, they are catching the Bucs at a good time. Their secondary is a mess. Cornerback Brian Kelly is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Safety John Lynch is going to miss the game with neck problems. Gone is free safety Dexter Jackson to free agency. That leaves cornerback Ronde Barber as the only Super Bowl starter in the secondary healthy for this game.

But the Bucs are the defending Super Bowl champs and their defense can tear apart the Cowboys offense. The pressure will fall upon the defensive line. Defensive end Simeon Rice needs a big game against left tackle Flozell Adams. Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland need to dominate the middle.

And the Bucs need to force turnovers.

If the Cowboys can come up with this victory, they will have shocked the world with their 6-1 start. If not, remember what Parcells has been saying.

And 10. New York Jets at Philadelphia Eagles: The return of Chad Pennington adds interesting drama to this game. The return of the Jets to the living makes the AFC East race a little more interesting. Herman Edwards isn't saying how much he will use Pennington, but it's pretty easy to see he wants Vinny Testaverde to get the Jets off to a good start and turn the ball over to Pennington. It's smart coaching by Edwards. Testaverde probably won't generate more than a field-goal or touchdown in the first quarter, but the view from the sidelines will give Pennington a look at how the Eagles will blitz the Jets passing offense. Instead of having Pennington going into his first game with extra emotion and exuberance, this transition will make it a little easier for Pennington. The Eagles may have to hold back some of their blitzes until Pennington gets onto the field. The Eagles have their own issues. Donovan McNabb continues to struggle with his right thumb problems. The Eagles got lucky last week when Brian Westbrook broke a long touchdown return in the final two minutes to beat the Giants. This figures to be a low scoring game, too.

9. Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: Entering the season, the Bills and the Chiefs were considered the two most improved teams in the AFC. For the most part, they've either exceeded or matched expectations. The Chiefs are for real. Even though their offense hasn't hit a consistent rhythm, they are on a roll. They beat the Raiders with their defense even though it ranks No. 27 in the stats. Dick Vermeil is worried about the offense's inconsistency distributing the ball in the passing game. Though the Chiefs rank fourth in offensive statistics and second in scoring (29.7 per game), they are averaging only 214 yards a game passing, 15th in the league. Vermeil is only worried about the stats because he wants more from his offense. Trent Green has been doing a good job getting the ball to tight end Tony Gonzalez, but he needs to get the ball more to the outside receivers. Still, Priest Holmes continues to be the go-to player in the offense. The Bills survived a stretch of losing three games in four weeks by beating the Redskins at home and making sure they was no chance of Gregg Williams losing his head coaching job before the bye week. Both teams go on bye after this game.

Randy Moss
Randy Moss leads the NFL with 666 receiving yards.
8. New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings: Maybe the Red Sox and Cubs are cursed. But what has come over the Giants special teams. Now, that's a real curse. They can't keep deep snappers or kickers healthy. Those problems have cost them games. Last week, a punt that was only in the air for 2.9 seconds fell into Brian Westbrook's hands leading to what turned out to be a 84-yard punt return for a game-winning TD. Meanwhile, life couldn't be better for the Vikings. They are within a two-week stretch of putting the NFC North out of reach. If they win this game against the Giants at home and beat the Packers in the Metrodome next week, they will move five games ahead of Green Bay. Daunte Culpepper will keep throwing those long passes to Randy Moss, Kelly Campbell and Nate Burleson until someone intercepts one. That will be tough for the Giants with cornerback William Peterson out with a back problem.

7. Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens: Danny Kanell sent letters and a video tape to 15 NFL teams and had Dolphins offensive coordinator Norv Turner calling on his behalf. Those responses were met with laughter. So Kanell bided his team playing some minor league baseball and Arena League Football. Now, he is the Broncos starting quarterback for two of the most critical games of the season. Kanell is only 29 and he makes quick decisions throwing the football. But Kanell and Kanell alone has to get the Broncos through the next two games -- a road trip to Baltimore and a critical Monday Night game against the Patriots. Jake Plummer should take back the starting job after the Nov. 9 bye week, so it's Kanell's job to get the Broncos to 7-2 or 6-4 and not 5-4. It's becoming quite apparent that the Broncos pass blocking is suspect. The best thing the Broncos do is run block. That's where the Ravens present a problem. They are limiting teams to 93 yards rushing, and it's hard for a back to get 100 yards against them. If Clinton Portis can't get 100 yards against the Ravens, the Broncos and Kanell might not have a chance.

6. Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: In case you haven't noticed, the Saints are climbing back into the NFC South race. Their 1-4 start came against teams with a combined 22-9 record. Over the next months, the 3-4 Saints can make a statement because they play mostly division teams. Their defense is getting healthier, and the only starter who might be missing Sunday is defensive end Darren Howard, who is just getting the pins removed from his broken wrist. The running game is getting hot. Deuce McAllister is averaging 93 yards a game. But the biggest improvement for the Saints is that their receivers are holding on to the football. The Panthers still match up well against the Saints. What will be interesting to see is whether Jim Haslett copies the Titans and keeps eight defensive linemen and linebackers near the line to match up against the Panthers' multiple tight end sets. For the Saints, it's a must win. Aaron Brooks must outduel former Saints backup Jake Delhomme.

5. Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots: Don't you love the way Butch Davis even keeps his own team mystified over who will be the quarterback? Davis isn't saying who's starting until Sunday. Tim Couch gets yanked a lot quicker than Kelly Holcomb does when he's struggling. Couch can't like that. Holcomb continues to tell everyone his broken leg is bothering him and has affected his already limited mobility. The guess here is that Couch will get the start because it's uncertain whether Holcomb could stand up in the pocket with that offensive line for four quarters of Bill Belichick blitzes. William Green should be able to play despite a shoulder injury, but you wonder about his effectiveness. Belichick, meanwhile, may not say much about his team's injuries, but he sure knows how to keep the team moving forward despite injuries. His 5-2 start is Coach of the Year material. He does it with schemes and motivation. Tom Brady is playing with elbow problems that are making his shoulder sore, but he does enough each week to win.

4. St. Louis Rams at Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher made a bunch of much needed changes during the bye week. He decided to bring the Bus, Jerome Bettis, back as the starting running back. The Steelers run game has been nonexistent. With Marvel Smith struggling at left tackle with shoulder problems, Alan Faneca was moved from guard to left tackle to answer problems at tackle. If the Steelers are going to make a playoff run, they have to do it now, and they know they have to try to attack the Rams defense with running plays. What they don't want to do is keep failing with the short passing game and give the Rams offense more opportunities to throw the ball. Marc Bulger, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is setting behind one of the best pass protection pockets in football. The Steelers cornerbacks are having a tough time covering, so Bulger should find Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce open. Getting into a high-scoring game with the Rams could be disastrous.

3. Seattle Seahawks at Cincinnati Bengals: The Seahawks have to worry about this being a trap game. The Bengals are playing better, and there is no quarterback in football who wants to prove more to the Seahawks than Jon Kitna, whom Mike Holmgren didn't want to re-sign and let go to the Bengals. Marvin Lewis has made the Bengals more competitive. They've only committed nine turnovers, so Lewis has stopped the usual Bengals tradition of beating themselves. Corey Dillon has something to prove, too. He's a Seattle native and lives in Seattle during the offseason. A groin injury has slowed his season to a crawl, but Dillon plays well when he's motivated. He will be motivated this week. The Seahawks struggled to beat the Bears at home last week. They are showing holes in being able to stop the run. This could be a dangerous game.

2. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars: These are the games the Titans can't afford to lose. Steve McNair is doing everything, but the team needs to let a few of the other offensive players take some pressure off him. The Jaguars are 1-5 and are very beatable. What is interesting is how the Titans are slowly diminishing the playing time of Eddie George, who is averaging 2.8 yards a carry. Last week, they used Robert Holcombe more in running situations. At some point, Chris Brown will be phased in. What could be ugly is the type of pressure the Titans will apply to rookie Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich. Jeff Fisher loves to pressure young quarterbacks, but he's also good at figuring out ways to stop good running attacks. Fred Taylor is a good one for the Jaguars, but if the Titans stop him on first and second downs, it could be a long day for Leftwich.

1. Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears: I'm including this game for amusement only. It could have major ramifications for next year's draft. These are two of the worst teams in football and they face each other two times in the next three weeks. The Bears are now starting to look like the better of the two teams. Chris Chandler did a much better job picking up the blitz last Sunday against Seattle than Kordell Stewart had been doing. The Bears hope to have Anthony Thomas back in the backfield and Marty Booker back in the receiving corps. There is nothing good going for the Lions. Joey Harrington is barely holding on to his starting job and the receiving corps stinks without Charles Rogers. Nobody is getting open, so Harrington is standing back and throwing bad passes. The Lions have no running game to give him help.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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