Commentary

Dallas has a lot of drama, but is still likely to make the wild card

Scouts Inc. discusses whether the Cowboys are in trouble, the NFC South's best team and tempting Week 7 matchups.

Originally Published: October 16, 2008
By Scouts Inc. | ESPN.com

The round table weighs in on how Dallas will fare the rest of the season, the competitive NFC South and sure-thing matchups. After watching all the film, Scouts Inc.'s pro scouts debate the hot topics heading into Week 7.

Are the Cowboys in trouble?

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesDoes the Cowboys' season depend on Tony Romo's pinkie?
Jeremy Green: Well, they are clearly not fine right now. I still think the Cowboys will finish at 10-6, despite predicting earlier in the season a 13-3 season for Jerry Jones' team. When you make early preseason predictions, they are based on that team having a best-case scenario and staying injury-free. That clearly isn't the case. They currently have three major issues -- QB Tony Romo's pinkie, Adam Jones' suspension and CB Terence Newman's hernia. They will also be without RB Felix Jones for potentially a month, and lost P Mat McBriar. This is a lot to overcome, but I still see them as a wild-card team. These injuries should force the Cowboys to get back to running the football with Marion Barber and have their front seven live up to its potential.

Gary Horton: They are in trouble! Pacman is gone, Romo is hurt, WR Roy Williams is in town and this is a team with too much drama. Despite the rumors that Romo wants to play through his injury, QB Brad Johnson will be under center for the next month. As a result, this will be a more predictable offense -- but it will also be more efficient and less mistake-prone. However, their pass defense is struggling, and good offenses can move the ball on them. Plus, it remains to be seen if there are enough footballs to go around and keep a lot of big egos satisfied. This team may have the most talent in the NFL, but something is missing. The Cowboys may make the playoffs, but they will fall short again and live up to their reputation as a talented but underachieving team.

Keith Kidd: I'm still drinking their Kool-Aid, because I picked them to win the Super Bowl and it's still too early in the season to jump ship. But I've got some big concerns about a lot of things in Dallas right now, including injuries, team chemistry, the head coach and special teams. Even without Romo, this offense still has the potential to be one of the most explosive in the NFL -- especially with the addition of Williams. However, head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might have the toughest coaching jobs in sports.

Doug Kretz: I think the Cowboys will struggle, but survive. They should lose three of their next four, especially if Romo is out. Even though Johnson can manage the team and give them some kind of presence, the distractions and losses on defense are going to be too much for them to overcome against some of the top teams (Buccaneers, Giants and Redskins). I see them finishing 10-6 and ending up being a wild-card team. By the end of the season, the Cowboys should be close to full strength again, and they should have a good chance to advance in the playoffs.

Ken Moll: The Cowboys are in a bit of trouble with the losses of Romo, Newman, Pacman Jones, Felix Jones and McBriar. Felix Jones gave the Cowboys' offense an extra dimension and is the most explosive player on the roster. Johnson is a capable backup quarterback who can be effective on short and intermediate throws, but will struggle to stretch the field. He can't improvise the way Romo can to hide some of the imperfections of Dallas' offensive line. Plus, McBriar's replacement -- Sam Paulescu -- should be solid, but he lacks game experience. The Cowboys have enough talent to make the postseason as a wild card with a 10-6 record and make a run. Phillips has a good staff and an offensive coordinator that will be creative enough to score points and win games. If they get through this tough challenge, the Cowboys will get that elusive win in the postseason, but then they will lose.

Tag Ribary: The Cowboys definitely aren't fine when you add up all the injuries and off-field incidents. As possible Super Bowl contenders, their first order of business needs to be winning the division and establishing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, right now that is looking like a tough thing to do. The secondary is banged up and missing players, the offense needs adjusting due to Romo's injury, Williams needs to get up to speed in a new offense, losing McBriar will give them worse field position in every game and they are playing in the toughest division. Based on all that, I see them as a wild-card team, and the fact that they haven't won a playoff game since 1996 makes me wonder how far they can advance, if they do get in.

Matt Williamson: The Cowboys are a 10-win team at minimum, and I will go on record to say they win 11. Before the season, they were my pick to win it all, and I suppose that I will stick with that prediction. However, I am staying with that prediction because I haven't been blown away by another team. This sounds crazy, but I think Romo's injury could act as a unifying force, and from an offensive play-calling standpoint, it might play to the Cowboys' strengths, because they will not always be looking for the big play deep downfield. They should be more content getting the ball to TE Jason Witten, Barber and Felix Jones (when healthy), and then taking shots downfield to Owens and Williams. Then when Romo returns, he will improve an offense that is already clicking.

Who wins the NFC South, which may be the NFL's most competitive division?

Green: I still think the NFC East is the most competitive division in the NFL, but the NFC South is a close second. Even though they were just routed in Tampa Bay, I think the Panthers will win the division. I think the biggest difference that sets them apart is QB Jake Delhomme. He is finally healthy and is a true leader. His presence has been huge thus far in the Panthers' 4-2 start. I also like their two-headed rushing attack with RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, along with their hard-hitting defense that features a healthy Julius Peppers at defensive end.

Horton: The most competitive division may still be the NFC East, but the NFC South is close. Tampa Bay, Carolina, and New Orleans are built to last. Atlanta is a nice story, but it's hard to see the Falcons as a viable playoff team. Of the other three, New Orleans is by far the most explosive, and the Saints have the best chance to go on a run. But they have a brutal schedule and won't play a home game until Thanksgiving weekend. If they can get through that stretch, they will win the division with QB Drew Brees at the helm, because Carolina and Tampa Bay are solid, but not explosive.

Kidd: This divisional race could come down to the final weekend when Carolina plays at New Orleans. Nevertheless, I like Carolina in this division, because defense wins championships and the Panthers are a very good running team -- especially once their offensive line is back to full strength. Plus, Delhomme is healthy, with a better perimeter supporting cast. Forget about the Tampa Bay game last week, because the Panthers have their physical mentality back, which has been missing since their Super Bowl appearance in 2003.

Kretz: I see the Buccaneers winning this division. A case could be made for all four teams, but Tampa Bay's defense has been smothering opponents, and the supposed rift between QB Jeff Garcia and head coach Jon Gruden appears to be over. With WR Joey Galloway returning to health and the way Garcia spreads the ball around, this offense has just enough weapons to be dangerous. Tampa Bay also has the best turnover ratio in the division at plus-three.

Moll: The NFC South is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, and it's way too close to call this early in the season. The Saints have the best offense in the league right now, but their defense and special teams have been very inconsistent. The Falcons and Buccaneers aren't far behind and are excellent rushing clubs, which should bode well throughout the rest of the season. The Panthers played poorly in Week 6, but have been playing excellent defense most of the season. There are reasons to pick any of these teams, but I would go with the Panthers and their No. 3 overall defense. Plus, they have two excellent backs that can control the ball at the end of games, a veteran quarterback with explosive WR Steve Smith on the perimeter, and a solid offensive line.

Ribary: I like the Panthers because they are playing well on defense, and the offense will only get better once their offensive line gets healthy. This team appears to have great chemistry, and I don't think they have played their best game yet, by any means. Delhomme is back and playing well. Last week they were stung by turnovers, but I don't see that being a regular occurrence.

Williamson: I still feel that the NFC East is the most competitive division in the league, but obviously this one is very tight as well. I like New Orleans, and I think the Saints are clearly the best team of the four. They will soon pull away from the pack and earn themselves a first-round bye in the playoffs. The defense is starting to come together, and the offense is going to continue to put points up in bunches. Just wait until TE Jeremy Shockey and especially WR Marques Colston reappear on the scene. The Saints might win the whole thing.

Based on matchups, who do you expect to have a big game in Week 7?

Green: I think it will be a struggle this week for the Rams to once again stop the run. With the injury to Romo, I look for the Cowboys to grind this game out on the road. Johnson is no more then a caretaker of the offense, which means Barber will get a lot of touches in this one. Look for 100-plus yards and a few scores from him as that big, physical Dallas offensive line wears down St. Louis' front four.

Horton: Although the Giants' defense did not play real well on "Monday Night Football," they still have a terrific pass rush and blitz package. San Francisco is the perfect opponent to attack, because offensive coordinator Mike Martz is so pass-happy that he rarely protects his quarterback with maximum protection schemes. Martz often has all of the skill players releasing on routes, so the 49ers are really susceptible to the blitz. This means QB J.T. O'Sullivan is going to get hit a lot. The Giants will come with some overload blitzes, bring their corners at times and put pressure on O'Sullivan to get the ball out quickly, or else he will take a lot of punishment.

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson
Bob Levey/Icon SMIDon't be surprised if Andre Johnson lights up the Lions -- even if he is double-teamed.
Kidd: I love Texans WR Andre Johnson's matchup this week against a Lions secondary that's giving up 250.6 yards per game. Even though the Lions' defensive game plan will be designed to take away Johnson, they continue to make critical mistakes that result in explosive downfield plays. Johnson is an unbelievable player that can attack all levels in the passing game. He will punish the Lions if they try to play him man-to-man, and at times when they double him, too.

Kretz: I think there are several running backs poised to have big games this week -- Giants RB Brandon Jacobs versus the 49ers, Buccaneers RBs Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn versus the Seahawks, and Barber versus the Rams. Of those, I see Jacobs having the best day. Head coach Tom Coughlin will want to get back to basics after losing to the Browns, and the 49ers rank No. 22 in the NFL stopping the run.

Moll: The Giants will bounce back with a big performance versus the 49ers as QB Eli Manning picks apart a marginal pass defense. It's likely San Francisco defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will stack the line of scrimmage to derail the power ground assault of New York, which should open up the field for a frustrated Manning. San Francisco has to travel cross-country, and things haven't gone well for the road team in these matchups this season. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride won't get pass-happy, but if the 49ers commit their defense to overplaying the run (which I anticipate), Manning should find his receivers downfield. Also, it's important to Coughlin that his quarterback gets back on track and regains his momentum that started in last year's postseason.

Ribary: Barber should have a big game as a dual threat against the Rams' defense. If Johnson is filling in for Romo, the Cowboys might give the Rams a heavy dose of Barber on the ground and through the air. Last week Barber ran the ball 17 times while also catching 11 passes out of the backfield.

Williamson: The Steelers' defense. Bengals QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will start again for Cincinnati, and the Bengals can't run the ball. The Steelers might have the best run defense in the league, and while Cincinnati still has dangerous downfield weapons, Pittsburgh isn't giving up the big play. Plus, there is no way the Bengals will be able to protect Fitzpatrick long enough for him to even attempt to go downfield with any regularity. Pittsburgh's defense will be dominant.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.