When veteran quarterback Tony Romo went down with yet another serious back injury in a late August preseason game – which led to a 6 to 10-week rehab timetable – the Dallas Cowboys (5-1) collectively eyed Week 8 as a crucial date on their schedule.
Coming out of their bye week, the Cowboys likely hoped to be .500 at best with rookie Dak Prescott under center as Romo’s replacement – not great, but still good enough to make their Sunday Night Football matchup at home against the Philadelphia Eagles (4-2) a meaningful contest within the NFC East.
Instead, Prescott has partnered with fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott to form the NFL’s most potent quarterback / running back combination, powering the Dallas offense to 401.5 yards per game (third overall). Prescott’s preternatural ability to protect the ball (7 TDs & 1 INT), and a deadly accurate 68.7 completion percentage, have combined with Elliott’s league-leading 703 rushing yards and 8.9 yards per carry average to propel Dallas to a 5-1 mark.
When the season began, Dallas was pegged by online sportsbook Bovada as 50 to 1 longshots to win the Super Bowl. Those odds shortened to 33 to 1 after a 1-1 start, but four consecutive wins have brought them down to 14 to 1 ahead of Sunday’s pivotal divisional tilt.
The Eagles, meanwhile, started out red hot at 3-0 behind their own rookie QB in Carson Wentz, before dropping two close games on the road. Last week saw Philadelphia return to its winning ways in a dismantling of the previously unbeaten Minnesota Vikings (5-1), and the Eagles currently sit in second place behind Dallas in the highly competitive NFC East.
Even in victory, however, Wentz looked overmatched for the second straight game, completing just 16 of 28 passes for a paltry 138 yards, along with one TD and two INTs.
With that regression in mind, along with the return of star wideout Dez Bryant to the Dallas huddle, and the Eagles’ recent struggles on the road, Bovada has installed the Cowboys as 4.5-point home favorites.
The rest of Sunday’s schedule is littered with tight games between closely matched teams.
The Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) take on the Indianapolis Colts (3-4) as 3-point road favorites via Bovada; the Oakland Raiders (5-2) visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3) as 1-point road underdogs despite sporting a 4-0 road record; and the Houston Texans (4-3) host the Detroit Lions (4-3) as consensus 2.5-point home favorites on the strength of a 4-0 home record.
One game that seems closer than it should pits the New England Patriots (6-1) against their AFC East kid brothers the Buffalo Bills (4-3).
The Bills handed the Pats a humiliating 16-0 home shutout back in Week 4, but that New England squad was playing its last game without Tom Brady in the huddle. With their all-world QB back in the fold, the Pats are playing lights out football as usual, and Brady has already staked his claim to several statistical categories despite giving the league a four-game head start.
The Bills did use their emotional win in New England as a stepping stone to a pair of wins, but last week they were taken apart by a Miami Dolphins (3-4) team that was getting 8.5 points at home.
This week it’s the Bills who are big home underdogs, as Brady’s resurgent return makes the Pats 6.5-point consensus road favorites for the highly anticipated divisional rematch.