Nobody would have blamed the Dallas Cowboys for losing on Sunday night.
When you take the safe route on Dak Prescott and sit him for a game at a solid Minnesota Vikings team, allowing him to rest his injured calf another week, you have to prepare for a loss. It was going to be hard enough to beat Minnesota with Prescott.
Instead, the Cowboys have to feel like they stole a win.
To cap a Sunday in which multiple backup quarterbacks played the hero role, Cooper Rush made several key plays including a game-winning touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. The Cowboys escaped with a 20-16 win and gave Prescott another week to get healthy. It's the kind of win that can and should get the Cowboys thinking about getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
There are five teams in the NFC that should legitimately believe they are the best in the conference: Cowboys, Buccaneers, Packers, Cardinals and Rams. The edge the Cowboys have on most of those teams is their schedule.
ESPN's FPI has the Cowboys with the ninth-easiest remaining schedule. Football Outsiders also ranked the Cowboys' remaining schedule as the ninth-easiest before Week 8 started. The Rams have the third-hardest remaining schedule via ESPN, the Packers have the hardest remaining schedule via Football Outsiders and the Cardinals are 11th and eighth on those lists, respectively.
The Cowboys have a lot of games left against the NFC East. If you've seen the NFC East play, you know that's a good thing for Dallas.
The problem might be the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers have an even easier remaining schedule than Dallas (eighth easiest on ESPN, fourth on FO). They also have the tiebreaker over the Cowboys due to a win all the way back on opening night of Week 1. Who thought that game might determine who gets the NFC's lone bye in the playoffs?
But more than the schedule, the Cowboys have the look of a contender. Everyone knows how good the offense is. The defense has been surprisingly good too. The Vikings had a great opening drive on Sunday night and then didn't see the end zone after that. Their best drive came due to three questionable penalties on the Cowboys defense. And it's not like the Vikings offense doesn't have playmakers. That win was fantastic given the circumstances. It legitimized the Cowboys' start, not that there should have been much doubt.
Dallas probably should be 5-2, not 6-1. But Sunday night's win allows the Cowboys to start wondering if they can be the best team in the NFC.
Here are the power rankings following Week 8 of the NFL season:
32. Houston Texans (1-7, Last Week: 32)
A report from NFL.com said receiver Brandin Cooks is unlikely to be traded. Cooks does have another year left on his deal and he's probably one of the Texans' best players so it makes a little sense to keep him. On the other hand, is Cooks going to resign and still be a top receiver in 2023?
31. Detroit Lions (0-8, LW: 31)
The Lions have mostly played hard but Sunday's 44-6 loss was embarrassing all around. The focus from here on out has to be getting one win, because nobody remembers the one-win teams through history. Everyone remembers the winless teams forever.
30. Miami Dolphins (1-7, LW: 29)
Devante Parker had 85 yards on Sunday. More importantly he got through the game healthy, which means he retained his trade value. It's highly disappointing that the Dolphins are in this position where they should trade off pieces, but that's the only answer.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6, LW: 28)
Dan Arnold got 10 targets. Jamal Agnew got 12. Heck, Carlos Hyde got eight somehow. And Laviska Shenault, one of the Jaguars' most talented young players and someone who should be a big part of the Jaguars' rebuild, got four targets. He had two catches for 13 yards. Somehow, owner Shad Khan is totally happy with the coaching staff and direction of his team.
28. New York Jets (2-5, LW: 30)
Well, the Joe Flacco trade looks even weirder now. Who knows where the Mike White story goes from here, but he had a heck of a day in his first start. Even if he ends up being a high-end backup for the Jets for many years, there's still a ton of value in that.
27. New York Giants (2-6, LW: 27)
The focus will be on the Chiefs and their struggles in a win. But the fact is, the Giants had a ton of chances to win the game and their offense couldn't do enough against a bad Kansas City defense. That's troubling.
26. Washington Football Team (2-6, LW: 26)
Rookie Jaret Patterson ended up with 11 carries in a close game, while Antonio Gibson had just eight. Gibson is dealing with a shin injury and at some point it makes no sense to play him when he isn't himself. Judging by the coaches' snap distribution Sunday, they know Gibson isn't himself either. Just shut him down and let him get healthy.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5, LW: 25)
Running back Jordan Howard might end up as the most all-time frustrating touchdown vulture in fantasy football history. He reemerged from the practice squad after Miles Sanders' injury and immediately scored two short touchdowns. He might be playing that role until he's 35.
24. Atlanta Falcons (3-4, LW: 20)
Hopefully Calvin Ridley gets to a good place soon and can return to football. The Falcons have to move on without him and their offense is going to struggle, just like it did Sunday. They don't have the receiver depth to compete on offense without Ridley.
23. Chicago Bears (3-5, LW: 24)
Justin Fields' fourth-down touchdown run was a thing of beauty. He's gaining confidence. It's nice to see steps in the right direction.
22. Seattle Seahawks (3-5, LW: 23)
Tyler Lockett, who had disappeared from the offense after Russell Wilson's injury, had 12 catches on 13 targets for 142 yards. It's amazing what can happen when you get your best players the ball.
21. Denver Broncos (4-4, LW: 22)
The Broncos are .500 and should think they can be a wild-card contender. But a chance to be a one-and-done playoff team shouldn't and didn't dissuade them from taking the Rams' Von Miller trade offer. Miller is 32, his body might be breaking down and the Rams were willing to give up a second- and third-round pick for the pending free agent. Miller can come back to Denver years from now and get his name put in the ring of honor, but this was a trade the Broncos could not refuse.
20. Carolina Panthers (4-4, LW: 21)
Christian McCaffrey is expected back this week. Thee Panthers would be the NFC's final wild-card team if the playoffs started today and we'll see what they look like with their most important player back in the lineup.
19. Minnesota Vikings (3-4, LW: 18)
Mike Zimmer admitted to the mistake of calling consecutive timeouts, which cost the Vikings a 5-yard penalty and helped Dallas convert a third-and-11 on the next play. A play after that, the Cowboys scored the game-winning touchdown. That will be yet another piece of evidence for frustrated Vikings fans who want a coaching change.
18. Indianapolis Colts (3-5, LW: 16)
Carson Wentz's left-handed interception from the end zone that was turned into a pick-six was the memorable lowlight, but his interception in overtime might have been worse. There was no excuse for the decision and it's even worse when you see, as the tweet below pointed out, he had running back Jonathan Taylor wide open in front of him for what would have been at least a first down and then some. This is a horrendous play by Wentz.
Taylor **might have** taken this to the house https://t.co/oAczU5xWY4
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) November 1, 2021
17. Cleveland Browns (4-4, LW: 14)
In six games this season, Odell Beckham Jr. has a minuscule 17-232-0 line. Donovan Peoples-Jones has been a better receiver for Cleveland. As my Sunday night podcast partner Charles Robinson pointed out, the Browns should trade OBJ but they're very unlikely to find someone to take him. It's amazing how bad this situation has gotten.
16. San Francisco 49ers (3-4, LW: 19)
Deebo Samuel has emerged as one of the NFL's best receivers. He has 819 yards, passing Jerry Rice for the team record through seven games. Niners Wire said only six receivers in NFL history have had more yards through the first seven games of a season. It's an amazing start and has basically turned the rest of the 49ers' pass catchers into observers.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3, LW: 17)
T.J. Watt is going to make a strong NFL defensive player of the year case. He had 1.5 sacks on Sunday and was the best player on the field in a 15-10 win. We also saw how important he is to the defense in the games he missed due to injury.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3, LW: 10)
The Chargers need to get Mike Williams going again. He was off to a blazing start. Then in the last two games he has four catches for 46 yards and the Chargers are 0-2. That's not a coincidence.
13. New England Patriots (4-4, LW: 15)
Bill Belichick is doing it again. The win at the Chargers was impressive, holding down a very good offense and getting they key turnover when needed, a fourth-quarter pick-six that gave New England a lead it didn't relinquish. The Patriots are suddenly alive. They look like a different team than the one that allowed Davis Mills to carve them up a few weeks ago.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (4-4, LW: 13)
A win is better than a loss, but it's not like the Chiefs have a lot to be excited about after barely beating the Giants. There are too many turnovers and penalties and not many big plays to make up for it. The Chiefs could develop into a great team, but they're not very good right now.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3, LW: 7)
Ouch. The Bengals had to feel like they were making strides with the win over the Ravens, but they gave all of those gains back losing to the Jets. And for fans who rightfully complain about that terrible unnecessary roughness call that practically ended the game, beating the Jets shouldn't come down to one penalty call. It was a really, really bad loss by a young team that might have gotten a valuable lesson in handling prosperity.
10. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2, LW: 11)
The Raiders are in first place of the AFC West. This week will be telling. They play at the Giants. If the Raiders have a real shot to be division champions this is a game they should win, and do so comfortably too.
9. New Orleans Saints (5-2, LW: 12)
The Saints are a surprising 5-2 but now have to change on the fly due to Jameis Winston's ACL injury. The offense is going to look totally different with Taysom Hill. However, if there's any coach you'd trust to figure it out, it might be Sean Payton.
8. Tennessee Titans (6-2, LW: 9)
There's no good news with the Derrick Henry loss, but it would have been a lot worse had the Titans lost Sunday. As it stands, they have a three-game lead and own the tiebreaker of the Colts. Even if the Titans totally fall apart without Henry, the Colts still might not catch them.
7. Baltimore Ravens (5-2, LW: 8)
The Ravens will be an interesting team to watch at the trade deadline Tuesday. You'd think they could cheaply add a running back, which would be big for them. Or they'll just stick it out with the old veterans they've collected.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2, LW: 2)
It's weird to say about a team that has so much talent, but they miss Antonio Brown a bit. Chris Godwin was the only one making an impact Sunday for most of the game, and the Bucs are going to be at their best when they're spreading it around.
5. Arizona Cardinals (7-1, LW: 1)
Kyler Murray could miss some time with a sprained ankle. It's best to not rush him back, because Murray tried playing through a shoulder injury all last season and it didn't turn out well. The Cardinals' great start could be washed away pretty quickly if Murray isn't himself, as we saw last season.
4. Buffalo Bills (5-2, LW: 6)
So who has the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL? If you are a believer in Football Outsiders' DVOA, before Week 8 it was the Bills by a significant margin. Buffalo seems like a team that should be able to handle business against the teams on its schedule it should beat.
3. Green Bay Packers (7-1, LW: 5)
The Packers were without a lot of blue-chip talent last week and still found a way to win. It's a testament to the front office, which found pieces like cornerback Rasul Douglas. Douglas never stuck with a team in his short NFL career, but the Packers signed him and when injuries hit, he made a potentially pivotal play in their season by intercepting Kyler Murray in the final seconds.
2. Dallas Cowboys (6-1, LW: 4)
We thought the Cowboys had three top-end receivers, but we figured it was Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Gallup has been out with an injury, and Cedrick Wilson has filled his role very well. His 73-yard touchdown on Sunday night was the moment that allowed the Cowboys to start thinking about an upset win.
1. Los Angeles Rams (7-1, LW: 3)
The Rams gave up a lot in terms of draft picks for Von Miller, but that's what they do. This isn't 2015 Miller the Rams are getting. There's a serious concern about his ability to stay healthy, too. But the Rams are always going to bee aggressive. They don't overvalue draft picks like every other team. And now they have a player who can be a key part of a Super Bowl team if everything breaks right.