One week into the NFL season, both the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos have reason to be optimistic. Each team started the year with a marquee victory at home. The Broncos’ defense withstood a late surge by the Los Angeles Chargers, winning 24-21 on a blocked field goal attempt while the Cowboys’ win over the Giants was never in doubt.
Each team features a young quarterback (Dak Prescott, Trevor Siemian) trying to guide their legendary franchise back to the Super Bowl. Both have defenses that rose to the forefront last season, each placing inside the top 5 in points allowed per game.
But there’s an additional element on the line for the Cowboys – pride. The last time they beat the Broncos, 22 years ago, Jason Garrett was the emergency quarterback, not the head coach. Troy Aikman and Emmett Smith were the centerpieces of that 1995 team that spearheaded the last Cowboys’ Super Bowl victory. Since then Denver has won the past five meetings, the most recent taking place in 2013, a 51-48 Broncos victory in Dallas thanks to a game-winning, 28-yard field goal by Matt Prater on the final play of the game. Peyton Manning and Tony Romo combined for 920 passing yards and nine touchdowns in the high-scoring affair.
It all adds up to a matchup that’s one of the NFL’s best for Week 2. At stake is starting the season 2-0, vital for both when competing in two of the NFL’s most competitive divisions. The Chiefs, Raiders and Giants could all be playoff teams this season without anyone blinking an eye; the Redskins, Eagles, and Chargers loom not far behind. It’s not inconceivable for both the AFC West and the NFC East to produce two wild card teams, making each victory outside of your own conference a nice bargaining chip to collect.
Dallas at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cowboys -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Trevor Siemian keep it up?
Dak Prescott had a solid showing in his 2017 debut against the Giants, but that was expected. Siemian’s performance raised more eyebrows as he threw for 219 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception. Only four times last season did he end a game with a higher passer rating than Monday night’s 94.2.
Can Siemian keep it up against the Cowboys’ defense? This same unit held Eli Manning to 220 yards through the air and no touchdowns. Sure, Odell Beckham Jr. sat out with an ankle injury but it’s not like the Giants have zero other offensive options.
For Siemian to get comfortable, two things need to happen. First, Demaryius Thomas has to continue emerging as his primary target. After tailing off at the end of last season, he was back on track Monday night, catching a team-high five balls for 67 yards and a touchdown. Thomas will occasionally break coverage and stretch the field although Siemian is not known for his ability to throw deep.
Second, the Broncos’ offensive line has to keep it together. Guard Ronald Leary left Monday night’s game with a concussion and may not be ready to play. Without him for part of the game, Siemian got sacked four times by the Chargers. If Siemian has enough time to throw then Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders may get plenty of chances to make some plays.
2. Can the Broncos' D Stop the Prescott-Elliott Combo?
Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, fresh off the freedom of his delayed six-game suspension, picked up right where they left off in 2016. Elliott had 104 rushing yards while Prescott was sacked just once en route to 268 yards and a touchdown in opening win against the Giants.
But the task doesn’t get any easier for the Cowboys, as they go from one top-10 defense to another. Denver not only ranked first in the NFL against the pass last season, the Broncos came up with sacks 7.61 percent of opponents’ pass attempts in 2016. That rate was good for fifth in the league with All-Pro Von Miller leading the way.
Miller’s 13.5 sacks were second in the NFL last season but he was held in check (four tackles, one QB hit, no sacks) by the Chargers last week. Can he break through on Sunday and pressure the normally unflappable Prescott into making a mistake? He’s one of the few defenders in the league that is capable of making a major impact against the Cowboys’ explosive offense on any given play.
3. How about special teams?
I don’t think either team gets enough credit for what they do in this often overlooked part of the game. The Broncos won on a blocked field goal attempt in the closing seconds of Monday night’s contest; without it, they faced overtime. Meanwhile, on the Cowboys’ side, Dan Bailey went four-for-four on field goal attempts and has become one of the more dependable kickers in the league. Last year, he was perfect on extra points and missed only five field goals.
Brandon McManus, although he missed from 50 yards, is no slouch either, going 29-for-34 on field goals and missing just one PAT in 2016. There’s another stat for Denver that doesn’t get talked about a lot – the Broncos ranked seventh in the NFL in both punt and kick return average allowed last season. That’s important in a game where the simple x-factor of field position or a turnover will make the difference in a game that will likely go down to the final series.
This game will be close, hugging the Vegas line. What makes the difference? The Broncos showed well in the first half Monday night but struggled to close the deal. It’s what you can get with a first-year head coach, a bunch of young players and an offense that’s still finding its way.
You need to be on your game for all 60 minutes against the Cowboys and I fear another small lapse of concentration sometime in the second half of Sunday’s contest. That’s all it’s going to take for this Cowboys team to strike and put 22 years of bad blood against the Broncos to rest.
Prediction: Cowboys 20, Broncos 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.