Too early to make travel plans for Vegas?

By David Mullen

After two games into the NFL regular season, Dallas Cowboys loyalists are checking available flights to Sin City for Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. With a 2-0 record and outscoring the New York Giants and Jets a collective 70-10, the Cowboys look like a Super Bowl team. 

The Cowboys defense, led by Micah Parsons and an opportunistic defensive backfield, are the league’s best.
Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys

If Dallas fans had bet on the Cowboys to win and cover the point spread in their first two games, they would be drunk with cash. They could have enough capital to pay for airfare and hotel accommodations for a February visit to Las Vegas, with enough money left over to sober up at the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace. 

Picking the Cowboys out of the gate has been the closest thing to a sure bet this season. Even Phil Mickelson would win betting the Cowboys.

In all of the team power rankings produced by pro football pundits after Week 2, the Cowboys are among the top 32 NFL teams, alternating with the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles. While starting 2-0 does not guarantee a place in the Big Game, odds are clearly in the Cowboys favor.

Since the NFL expanded the postseason in 1990 and made nearly half of the league teams’ playoff-bound, clubs that opened the season 2-0 have a 63.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. Nearly 84 percent of teams starting 4-0 have qualified for the playoffs. The Cowboys’ next two games are at the 0-2 Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 24 and at home against the 0-2 New England Patriots on Sunday, Oct. 1. Dallas will be heavily favored to win both games.

Dallas is set up for a September to remember. But don’t forget about the past.       

The Cowboys have started the regular season 4-0 in 10 different seasons, but not since 2007. Only two of the 10 seasons ended with a Super Bowl trophy. Coached by Wade Phillips, quarterbacked by Tony Romo and with 13 Pro Bowl players, Dallas finished the 2007 season 13–3, earned a first-round playoff bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Dallas lost in their first-round playoff game to the Giants. The Cowboys have not appeared in the Super Bowl since January 1996. 

Despite the 2-0 start, the 2023 Cowboys offense has yet to explode. Behind a makeshift offensive line beset by injuries and inexperience, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Tony Pollard are not among the top players at their positions statistically.

But the Cowboys defense, led by Micah Parsons and an opportunistic defensive backfield, are the league’s best, holding the New York teams to less than 200 yards per game on average and causing seven takeaways. The defense plays with equal parts smarts and swagger, which has been the recipe for an undefeated start.    

Even at 2-0, the Cowboys record is only good enough for a three-way first place tie atop the stout NFC East with the Eagles and Washington Commanders. The Cowboys face Philadelphia and Washington four times in the final 10 games, beginning Sunday, Nov. 5 at Philly. Those four games, along with a Sunday night, Oct. 8 matchup against the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, will be the true test of the playoff viability of this Dallas team. 

In addition to the Cowboys faithful, fans of eight other 2-0 teams may be checking February flight schedules. With the exception of San Francisco and Philadelphia, can the other NFC 2-0 teams be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders?

Washington is 2-0 for the first time in 12 years but ranked 19th in the power rankings behind the 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals, 0-2 Los Angeles Chargers and a slew of 1-1 teams. Both Commanders’ wins were nail-biters. No one seems to be taking Washington seriously these days.  

Like the Cowboys, the New Orleans Saints are 2-0 behind a dominant defense. Led by the perennially mediocre QB Derek Carr, the Saints offense is lethargic. Thirteen of the NFC 16 teams have scored more points than New Orleans this season. The Saints two wins are by a total of four points.  

The 2-0 Atlanta Falcons are led by QB Desmond Ridder, who sounds like a character from a British drama. Ridder’s legs are as effective as his arm, and former UT All-American running back Bijan Robinson is second in the NFL in rushing. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the third undefeated team in the NFC South. The Bucs are QB Baker Mayfield’s fourth team since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft. He has found a home, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes without an interception.

Travel agents are also busy in San Francisco. The 49ers look flawless on all fronts. QB Brock Purdy, “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 2022 Draft, doesn’t need to be as pertinent when surrounded by teammates like Christian McCaffery, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and others. Jalen Hurts and the Eagles have looked flat in their first two games but remained undefeated. 

To put a 2-0 start in perspective, less than 42 percent of teams starting 1-1 have reached the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Jets, Giants and Browns are all 1-1 and no one is writing them out of the playoff picture yet.  The Chiefs and Bills, along with the undefeated Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, remain favorites for the AFC Championship. 

Starting 0-2, like the Bengals, Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings in 2023, almost always leads to a long offseason. Starting 0-3 is a death knell. Since 2002, only one team (the 2018 Houston Texans) has started 0-3 and qualified for the playoffs. The other teams are 0-98.

The Cowboys 2-0 start is reason for optimism, although a search of Priceline or Expedia for flights may be a bit premature. But if Dallas is 4-0 as September turns to October, the Cowboys odds of taking a trip  to Las Vegas in February greatly improve. Don’t bet against it.