NFL HALFWAY: Cowboys have built comfortable lead in NFC race
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) How `bout them Cowboys?
They've built a healthy lead on the rest of the NFC at the midpoint of this season, for starters. They've been playing like they're capable of finishing on top, too.
Defying so many of those pre-September predictions from the punditry, Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys have followed a one-point loss in their opener with seven straight victories. This, of course, with an all-rookie backfield of Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott performing well beyond their years.
''We're so dynamic it's crazy,'' said two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant, whose three-game absence due to a knee injury went largely unnoticed.
That's partly because of the polish and poise displayed by Prescott, the fourth-round draft pick from Mississippi State thrust into action when Tony Romo hurt his back during the preseason. The other significant factor in the first-half surge by the Cowboys, as sure a sign as any that it's sustainable, is the success Elliott has had carrying the ball behind that dominant offensive line built by three former first-round draft picks.
This fall has has been so fruitful for Dallas that Romo isn't guaranteed to get the job back.
''It's hard for me to say it's Tony's team, it's my team or anybody's team,'' Prescott said. ''It's a true team, and everybody is playing their part in it.''
That fearsome five the Cowboys (7-1) can pass and run behind is not the only factor in their command of the NFC playoff race. Another reason they're ahead is the struggles by other contenders, namely Seattle and Minnesota, to solidify the blocking up front.
The Seahawks (5-2-1) have had trouble getting their offense going this year, with running back Marshawn Lynch now retired and Russell Wilson grinding through ankle and knee injuries that have hampered his mobility. The revamped line remains a work in progress.
The Vikings (5-3) had the NFL's last undefeated record, until their bye week arrived. Since then, they've lost all three straight games with issues on offense, defense and special teams all influencing the streak. With both starting tackles on injured reserve and left guard Alex Boone recovering from a concussion that kept him out of the overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday, the protection for quarterback Sam Bradford is going to be a yearlong concern.
After the crushing loss at home to the Lions, coach Mike Zimmer at least sounded satisfied that some confidence had been restored.
''I'm hopeful they'll continue to carry it forward through the rest of the season, because if we do that we're going to win some games,'' Zimmer said.
The Atlanta Falcons (6-3) have already escaped their October skid, having rallied to beat Green Bay by one point on Oct. 30 and breezed by Tampa Bay four days later. The league's highest-scoring team, at 34 points per game, has assembled many more threats than just star wide receiver Julio Jones .
''We're at our best when we keep attacking and different guys get the ball,'' coach Dan Quinn said.
Here are some other facts and figures about the NFC entering the stretch run:
FALL OF THE FINALISTS: Carolina carried plenty of confidence, coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, along with a reputable defense and the NFL's most recent MVP, Cam Newton. The Panthers (3-5) instead have been one of the league's biggest early letdowns. The team they blew out in the NFC championship game last winter, Arizona, has struggled right along with them. The Cardinals (3-4-1) lost the rematch to the Panthers on Oct. 30.
PROBLEMS FOR THE PACKERS: With Aaron Rodgers still in his prime, the return of wide receiver Jordy Nelson and many other standouts on the roster, the Packers (4-4) were again a trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl. The offense just hasn't been able to establish a rhythm, injuries have begun piling up and the defense has been vulnerable lately with 30-plus points allowed in three of the last four games.
SNEAKY SAINTS: New Orleans hasn't made the playoffs since 2013, and after starting 0-3 the Saints sure weren't part of the conversation about Super Bowl contenders. The Saints (4-4) are still soft on defense, allowing an average of 30 points per game, the third-most in the league. They're in the thick of the wild-card race, though, right there with the New York Giants (5-3), Washington (4-3-1), Detroit (5-4), Philadelphia (4-4) and Green Bay.
FANTASY FOOTBALL STARS: Elliott, Arizona's David Johnson and Atlanta's Devonta Freeman have been productive running backs, as expected, but Chicago rookie Jordan Howard has been quite the revelation. Matt Ryan is in the MVP mix for the Falcons, and Matthew Stafford is playing as well as ever for the Lions. Odell Beckham has snapped to life after a slow start for the Giants. Tampa Bay's Mike Evans has become a true elite wide receiver.
IMPORTANT INTERCONFERENCE MATCHUPS: Philadelphia at Seattle on Nov. 20, Minnesota at Detroit on Nov. 24, Green Bay at Philadelphia on Nov. 28, Dallas at Minnesota on Dec. 1, Dallas at New York on Dec. 11, New York and Philadelphia on Dec. 22, Arizona at Seattle on Dec. 24, and New Orleans at Atlanta on Jan. 1.
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