Monday, October 01, 2007

Early Expectations

By Alan Burkhart

The so-called "NFL experts" love to make early-season predictions. Mike Klis of the Denver Post is already pointing to the October 14th match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots as a preview of the next Super Bowl. Others are referring to the Cowboys as the best team in the NFC and the Patriots as the best in all of football.

Excuse me, but we're only four weeks into a 16-game season. Sure, the Cowboys are 4-0 and the Patriots are 3-0 with Monday night's contest against the Bengals likely to be yet another Patriot victory. But, let's not overlook the fact that both the Packers and Colts also stand at 4-0, and that four other teams currently stand at 3-1.

The season is still quite young.

Both Dallas and New England have posted impressive stats, but neither team has faced an opponent with a winning record. And both teams still have another game to play before the Patriots visit Texas Stadium.

Dallas will almost certainly manhandle the Bills in Buffalo, and it's a good bet New England will defeat the Browns. That, if my own early predictions are correct (keep in mind I'm not an expert) will see both teams standing at 5-0 on October 14th.

On that day in Texas, both teams will be subjected to their first contest against an opponent with a record above .500. A number of questions will be answered:

1. First and foremost - how good is Tony Romo? The Cowboys likeable new QB has torn up the likes of the Giants, Dolphins, Bears and Rams, but how will he fare against the Pats stingy defense? And please don't point to his performance against the Bears. This is this year, not last year. And the Bears are SO last year.

2. And how will the Cowboys' defense stack up against Tom Brady's powerful offense? Can the Cowboys' somewhat suspect defensive backfield continue to improve and slow the Pats' offense while the slow-starting Cowboy offense gets its collective act together during the first half? In spite of leading the league in scoring, the Boyz have yet to score a first-quarter touchdown.

3. Can the Pats' defense contain hard-charging Marion Barber? Terrell Owens? Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton? I remain unimpressed with Julius Jones.

4. Do the Pats have a defensive lineman capable of getting past Leonard Marshall?

5. New Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has out-coached the brain trusts of 4 losing teams. But can he stay a step ahead of Pats coach Bill Belichick?

Neither team has faced a real test thus far in the season, and assuming that the Pats handle the Bengals Monday night, both teams will start next week undefeated. And they'll probably still be undefeated when they finally clash in Dallas. Each team promises to be the acid test for the other. Two explosive offenses, one with an established veteran QB and the other with a young gunslinger who will likely be the next "great" NFL passer. Keep in mind that "likely" means he hasn't done it yet.

The Pats' defense through three games is allowing just over ten points per game. The Cowboys defense started out awful but has improved a bit each week. Neither defense has faced an offense comparable to what they'll face when they play each other.

If it comes down to a defensive contest, the Pats will likely be the winner. In an offensive shootout, I'd give the edge to Dallas, but only barely and only because the game will be on Dallas' home turf. Tony Romo is a gem of a QB, and he has a multitude of tools at his disposal, but he hasn't reached the lofty plateau of Tom Brady. And whether it's fair or not, Romo will be judged by how he compares with Brady on that day.

As a diehard Cowboy fan, I'm waiting for this game to see just how good this latest incarnation of the team will be. So far, all anyone really knows is that they're better than NFL's absolute worst. Any realistic Patriot fan will also be looking to this game as the first true measurement of the character of the 2007 Pats.

When the dust has settled, it will doubtlessly have been one helluva ballgame. Super Bowl preview? Maybe. Maybe not. The season is young.

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